Exercising with osteoporosis: How to improve bone health through strength training

Apr 29, 2023
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Did you know 4.74 million Australians over 50 have poor bone health? Of those, 22 per cent have osteoporosis (a bone disease that develops when bone mass significantly decreases), and 78 per cent have osteopenia (aka, low bone density). The statistics are confronting, but they are not all doom and gloom. With the right exercise plan, you can prevent a further reduction in bone density and increase your strength.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone-weakening disorder, most commonly seen in older women. Bone density loss typically begins after the second decade of life and is accelerated after menopause. In fact, for a few years afterwards, the loss of bone density can be as high as 5 per cent per year. The major complication associated with osteoporosis is an increased risk of fractures, which are associated with high morbidity and mortality.

The importance of exercise in bone health

While you may be hesitant to exercise if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis or suffered a recent fracture, staying active should be your number-one priority (after consulting your doctor, of course).

Bones respond greatest to activities that apply high amounts of bone-loading force, such as resistance training and impact activities, and those that are different to what your bones are normally accustomed to. Resistance training (aka strength training) requires us to use our muscles and move our bodies against a force. It is this resistance that stresses the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones, and forces them to adapt to the new stimulus. Consistency is key and benefits can be seen with just 2-3 strength training sessions per week.

Placing (good) stress on your bones helps to build and maintain their strength, which reduces the likelihood of a new or repeat fracture. In fact, a study published in the British Medical Journal discovered that resistance exercise can reduce your risk of falling and fracturing a bone by almost 60 per cent

As Jill Smith explains, “10 years ago, I had to have medical treatment which put me at risk of osteoporosis. I had yearly bone mass density scans to track my bone health. Every year my bone density decreased. I moved from the normal range down to osteopenia range and finally to osteoporotic range.”

While Smith was put on medication to improve her bone health, she struggled to reach the normal range, so she joined Community Moves, a fitness centre for over 50s. “After about two years, I’m back into normal range and I no longer take medication! My specialist thinks the regular weight-bearing exercise three times a week has made the difference.”

How to exercise with osteoporosis

Pilates and yoga provide some benefit to bone health, but the best option is a combination of strength training that uses weights, resistance machines, resistance bands/tubing or cables, and exercises that create a high-impact force on the body such as jogging, jumping, and step classes.

Strength training is also a great way to help the brain and body improve the way they work together. This improvement in coordination and confidence is critical in reducing your risk of falls. Think free weights, weight machines, working with resistance bands and lifting your own body weight. Everyday activities or sports can also help improve bone heath, including stair climbing, dancing and playing tennis. 

Flexibility and stability exercises can work in tandem with resistance moves to improve your coordination and support a full range of motion, so stretch your muscles after a workout, practise standing on one leg or take up tai chi to improve your balance.

Australians enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Men today live nearly 80 years and women live 84 years, both up 25 years from a century ago. The physical health of older Australians is also improving, and most people (82 per cent) are positive about their quality of life.

Conditions such as Osteoporosis are fairly common in Australia with over 1.2 million Aussies being diagnosed, the majority of which are over 50. Osteoporosis is a condition that leads to your bones becoming frail and it can cause a lot of problems for those who are ageing.  

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 2-3 strength-based sessions per week for older adults to maintain their health, and function, and reduce their risk of chronic disease. With that being said, it’s never too late to start strength training at home, but remember once you start, it’s a journey that should never end. 


*Van Marinos is the founder of Community Moves and expert for Medifit, a new brand that helps Australians build up their strength, flexibility and mobility from home so that they can “age actively”.

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