Updated 29 May 2013

Bone exercise: start them young

Our bones are in a constant state of change. How we manage their strength depends on how soon we train them.


As we age, our bones naturally become less dense. Even as early as age 40, bones are no longer as strong as they once were. They have begun to get thinner and weaker. Unchecked, this deterioration can be a contributing factor in developing osteoporosis, which in turn increases the risk of having a fracture.

Teréza Hough, CEO of the National Osteoporosis Foundation of South Africa (NOFSA) explains.

Over the last 20 years or so, doctors and other healthcare professionals have come to realise that one of the best ways to build and maintain healthy bones is through exercise. This can be achieved by weight bearing or impact exercises such as walking, running, playing tennis, stair climbing, jumping, or dancing.

And while non-weight bearing exercises, such as cycling or swimming, do not have the same loading effect on bones, but are excellent for overall health and building muscle strength.

A regular, well-structured exercise regimen, in conjunction with a well-balanced diet and other lifestyle measures, can help protect against osteoporosis and related fractures, and can help in rehabilitation. This is true for everyone, not just for those over 40.

Here’s why:

Exercise builds bone in children

Think of your skeleton as being the foundation needed to maintain a well-built house. Likewise, how long bones stay healthy depends on how well they were made to begin with. Most people reach their peak bone mass in their 20s.

This is when bones have achieved their maximal density and strength. Childhood and adolescence are probably the most important times for laying the foundation and making it as strong as possible, and you should invest everything you can in the bone-bank.

During the growth spurt in puberty, exercise and diet are probably most important. After peak bone mass is reached, bone density remains stable during adulthood, and then begins to decline. The more bone you have put into your bone bank, the more you have to lose!

Physicians once thought that reaching this peak depended primarily on diet, including sufficient calcium intake, and exposure to sunlight, which is necessary for production of vitamin D in the skin – vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium from food, for the healthy functioning of bone tissue, and thus for maintaining bone strength.

Recent studies have however shown that in laying down the bone foundation that will serve for a lifetime, exercise is just as important as diet.

What researchers found

From childhood to old age, exercise forms an important part of our lives and benefits us all in different ways:

  • Toddlers to teenagers – it will help build strong bones.
  • Adults – it will help maintain their bones.
  • Elderly – it will help prevent bone loss and falls.

In girls, the bone tissue accumulated during the ages of 11 to 13 approximately equals the amount lost during the 30 years following menopause.

Australia’s Prof Ego Seeman and colleagues have studied female gymnasts, both young girls and middle-aged women, and found that not only are pre-pubertal gymnasts likely to have a much better bone mineral density. But in later life, women who had trained as gymnasts also had much denser bones than non-gymnasts.

In another study, boys who did the most vigorous daily activity had 9%  more bone area (bigger bones), and 12% more bone strength than less active boys.

The moral of the story: it is never too early or too late, to begin the process of making your bones as strong as possible.

Key things to remember

  • Move it or lose it! Bone mass and exercise are inextricably linked.
  • Invest in your bones. Children should get plenty of exercise to help build their peak bone mass.
  • Exercise, in addition to a healthy diet and lifestyle, can help to maintain your bone density and slow the process that leads to osteoporosis.
  • By improving balance, strength, and agility, exercise helps prevent falls that lead to fractures.
  • Impact and weight bearing exercises are best –consider skipping, jogging or weight training instead of swimming or cycling.
  • Exercise can help with rehabilitation.
  • It is never too late to start exercising, but consult your doctor about what level and what type of exercise is best for you.

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Healthy Bones

Tereza is the CEO of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and worked as a Nursing Sister in the field of Osteoporosis for 18 years prior to her appointment with the Foundation. She used to be the Educational Officer for the Foundation and co-wrote the patient brochure on Osteoporosis. Read more

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