Think strong bones and you probably think calcium. Think exercise and you probably think getting fit. But there’s a piece of the puzzle many of us are missing with this thinking: the bond between exercise and bone health. Professor Robin Daly, Chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, says keeping bones healthy to avoid developing osteoporosis is not just about eating a calcium-rich diet. It’s also about staying active – and some forms of exercise beat others for bones.
Prof Daly’s recent study found that a combination of weight-bearing exercises, like dancing and resistance training, is most effective for building bone health.
“When we think about exercise, our motto tends to be: anything is better than nothing for health benefits. But if you really want to improve bone health, you do need to be more targeted in your approach,” he says. “Weight-bearing exercises – like dancing, skipping and jumping, which load the lower limbs in particular – are really good for maintaining bone density.” These forms of resistance training target muscles, Prof Daly says, creating the positive stress and the strain our bones love – strengthening them as we move around the dancefloor.
Food that builds strong bones: Nutrition is crucial, too. “If you’re low in calcium, vitamin D or even protein for muscles, the effects of exercise become blunted,” he explains. According to the Bone Health Foundation, dairy foods, sardines, spinach and almonds are all good sources of calcium, while the best source of vitamin D is safe sun exposure. Protein is found in lean meat, poultry and fish, as well as dairy products, nuts, eggs, beans and legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas.
Why exercise is important for our bones: Exercise physiologist Carly Ryan says bones adapt to exercise over time, so you need to mix-up your routine every six to eight weeks, or increase the load progressively (with heavier weights, for example). It’s also important to get moving. The Australian government recommends 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75–150 minutes of vigorous activity, a week, plus resistance training at least two days a week.
“If you follow those [recommendations], there’s a really good chance you’ll meet most of your needs in terms of maintaining bone density,” says Carly. “Moderate intensity is something that’s going to get your heart rate up, and have you huffing and puffing just a little bit. If you want the bone-density benefits, go with weight-bearing exercises within that 150 minutes.” Weight-bearing exercises include walking, playing tennis, hiking or dancing.
Not only is dancing great for muscles, it also builds flexibility and balance, Carly says.
“There are lots of different movements involved, which makes it a really good way to challenge the bones. It’s not just moving in a straight line – you’re twisting and moving, and you might even jump, depending on the type of dancing.” From contemporary and Latin to swing and Jazzercise, find local dance classes of all types online or through community groups.