Some of us are so busy building muscle that we forget about what lies underneath those muscles of steel – bone. Keeping your bones healthy is a key to successful aging, especially when you consider hip fractures are the number one reason people enter nursing homes.
We know that high-impact exercise, where both feet leave the floor, helps preserve bone density. Most studies also show that high-intensity resistance training helps preserve bone health too – but what about yoga? Could a workout most people use for stress relief have a positive impact on bone density and help you prevent osteoporosis?
Yoga and Bone Health
What goes on underneath your muscles? If you could look inside, you’d see bone is constantly being turned over as old bone is resorbed and new bone laid down. Cells called osteoblasts build new bone while osteoclasts have the job of clearing away the old bone. Ideally, you’d like your osteoblasts to stay one step ahead of your osteoclasts so you don’t lose bone.
It’s when the osteoclast activity exceeds the ability of osteoblasts to lay down new bone that bones lose density and become more fragile. Your bones reach their maximal density relatively early, at around age 30. It’s questionable whether you can really increase the density of your bones once you reach middle age.
The goal in later life is to keep the activity of osteoblasts and osteoclasts in balance. By doing this, you prevent further loss of bone tissue. Unfortunately, bone loss in women accelerates after menopause, partially due to a drop in estrogen. Men, too, can develop osteoporosis, although it’s less common. In men, the disease is linked with a drop in testosterone. Osteoporosis is also more likely to strike men with a smaller frame.
What a Study Showed
Can yoga alone have an impact on bone health? Researchers at the Yi-Hsueh Lu of The Rockefeller University, Bernard Rosner of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Dr. Gregory Chang of New York University put this idea to the test. They recruited 741 men and women with an average age of 68 to take part in a 7-year study. A number of the participants had low bone densities to begin with, either osteopenia or osteoporosis.
For this study, the participants did a daily 12-minute yoga routine that consisted of 12 common yoga poses. At the start of the study, the researchers took bone density measurements, blood studies, and imaging studies of the participants’ back and hips. At the end of the study, they repeated the bone density measurements.
The results? The participants who did the yoga routine daily showed improvements in bone density in the spine and femur of the leg. They also experienced improvements in bone density in the hip, although the results weren’t statistically significant. At least in this population, daily yoga was linked with improvements in bone density.
What’s surprising is the middle-aged and older folks in the study actually had denser bones after 7 years of daily yoga. That’s surprising since experts believe it’s hard to improve bone density after early adulthood and the best you can do is maintain what you have. What’s more, more than 80% of the participants had lower than normal bone density when they entered the study. Despite their bones already being in a weakened state, none of the participants experienced fractures or injuries. This suggests that yoga is also likely a safe practice in people with osteopenia or mild osteoporosis. Still, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before exercising with osteoporosis.
Other Health Benefits of Yoga
Yes, yoga is relaxing and a good stress reliever – that’s why many people do it. If you do power yoga, you can also improve muscle endurance and, possibly, muscle strength. Yet, yoga also helps with balance. Unfortunately, our sense of balance changes with age. Cells inside the inner ear, part of the vestibular system that helps us stay balanced, die off. Our vision, which also helps with balance, and reflexes change as well. Plus, we lose muscle strength. No wonder the risk of falling and fractures goes up!
Yoga trains the brain, vestibular system, and muscle to work better together and helps reduce the risk of falls as we age. Plus, yoga enhances flexibility. In terms of stress reduction, yoga reduces the effects of the stress hormone cortisol and tames the “fight or flight” response that makes us feel uptight and anxious. Studies show it lowers heart rate and blood pressure as well, all good things for your health.
Yoga for Bone Health?
Before deciding that yoga is the ultimate panacea for reducing the risk of osteoporosis, keep a few things in mind. This study had limitations. For one, the participants weren’t randomly selected. They chose to be in the study, meaning they probably liked the idea of practicing yoga. That could impact the results. If you ask people who have no interest in yoga to do a yoga workout regularly, they may not put forth the same effort or get the same results. So, there are still unanswered questions. Hopefully, these findings will lead to further studies looking at yoga and other forms of exercise for keeping bones healthy. What’s also apparent is other forms of exercise, high-impact and heavy resistance training, helps preserve bone density.
The Bottom Line
Although yoga may have benefits for bone health, your best bet is to also include moderate amounts of high-impact exercise and resistance training, using a resistance of at least 80% of one-rep max, to maximally stimulate the synthesis of new bone. Compound exercises, like squats, lunges, and deadlifts, do the job best.
Still, it’s good to know that the time you spend doing yoga may have another unforeseen health benefits, better bone health. However, don’t do yoga just for your bones, do it for the other health benefits it offers too. A yoga routine is a nice complement to more intense workouts with intense workouts being the yin and yoga the yang. Although different, they complement one another. Now, you have another possible reason to devote some time to yoga.