Keeping Bones Strong

Exercise strengthens our bones to help us stay active as we age.


By Ramona Fortanbary


If an archaeologist were to one day excavate your bones, would your skeleton be preserved enough to be useful? Well, that depends on how well humans take care of their bones during their lifetimes. In fact, we must build our bones from childhood to and through adulthood if we want to keep on moving in our older years and if we want that archaeologist to someday say, “what a specimen—this preserved skeleton will advance our knowledge of humans in the 2000s.”

In all reality, most of our bones will not be examined by archaeologists but by our family doctor as we go through childhood, puberty, adulthood, and our senior years. And in all of these periods in our life, it is critical that we take steps to keep our bones healthy and strong enough to carry us through life.

There are many different types of exercise that are all beneficial; however, to protect your bones, you must do activities that specifically target your bones. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, we must do “ Targeted bone loading… which describes force-generating activities that stimulate a specific bone or bone region beyond the level provided by daily activities.”

Surprisingly, swimming and bike riding are not beneficial to bones. While these two sports are excellent form of exercise, they are not force bearing because the water carries you and the bicycle carries you.

By its very nature, a force-generating load exercise requires the use of one’s feet to carry the body. Some examples of weight bearing or ‘force-loading’ exercises include: walking, jogging or running, tennis or racquetball, field hockey, basketball dancing, hiking, soccer and lifting weights.

It maybe surprising to learn that children as young as two as well as the elderly at age 82 can and must exercise to preserve their movement, albeit, both have very different levels of movement. The International Osteoporosis Foundation provides specific time periods children and teens must exercise in their youth when bones develop to their maximum. This is vitally important because the greatest gains in bone mass occur just before and during puberty.

The foundation says children and teens of all ages should do the following:

  • Children and teens 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Short bursts of activity throughout the day can make up for the recommended total;
  • Children and teens should participate should participate in bone-strengthening activities at least three days a week;
  • Younger children age 2 to 6 years, should play actively every day.

For adults, exercise strengthens our bones to help us stay active as we age. “Exercise has been shown to increase bone strength in people of all ages,” according to an article titled Exercise and Bone Strength, by Mariana Shedden, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D. “The degree to which bone strength improves, however, is dependent on a variety of factors including age, reproductive hormone status, nutritional status and the nature of the exercise.”

The researchers say that an exercise program has to be specific and designed to target one or more bones or group of bones.

“For example, if gains in bone density in the hip and femur are desired, an exercise plan that loads (or targets) those specific sites, such as running or jumping is indicated. In order to stimulate bone mineral density gains in a particular bone, an exercise must overload that bone.” In other words bone-building exercises must apply more force to the bone than would occur in the normal course of living.

Targeted Bone Loading is the term used to refer to force-generating activities. An activity you practice may very well target one bone group, and we definitely know we are targeting our muscles when we exercise. And that is great. But many people do not ever exercise, which catches up with them in middle age when their bodies start to break down on them.

And even for those of us who exercise, we may not be building our bones. Muscles are fantastic, but muscles backed by strong bones keep us moving.

Some of the risk factors for developing frailty but which we can control include diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking and alcohol. Genetics also play a role in whether or not we have weak bones. Our age, gender, ethnicity and family history all play a role in our health and constitute risk factors we cannot control.

Despite our risk factors of age, gender or health, anybody of any age can benefit from regular exercise. “But if we don’t eat right and get enough of the right kinds of exercise, our bones can become weak and even break,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

The great news, though, is that it is never too late to begin an exercise or load-bearing exercise program to build your muscles and bones. In fact, exercise and bone health are inextricably tied to your overall well-being and ability to age and maintain the usefulness of your body well into your 70s or 80s. And who does not want to age well?

Ramona Fortanbary is a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer and editor. Ramona has served as a writer in many industries. She has been a newspaper editor, corporate communications manager and public affairs specialist and senior writer-editor for the U.S. government. Ramona has studied at Chapman and Harvard universities. Her interests include fitness, reading, traveling and volunteer work. Ramona currently serves on the board of Heart Marks Art Therapy, a 501(c)(3) organization offering free art therapy sessions to at risk segments of our society.

Main Photo Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic/; Second Photo Credit: Maria Sbytova/; Third Photo Credit: Alexander Lukatskiy/; Fourth Photo Credit: eriyalim/