Osteoporosis, which literally means porous bone, is a term most of us are familiar with. We may have had experience with the disease or have a friend or relative who has suffered a fracture due to low bone mass. In fact, osteoporosis may not be diagnosed until the occurrence of a fracture or, in many cases, people get their fractures fixed without ever realizing they have osteoporosis or low bone mass. The consequences of this disease are significant. Statistics published by the National Osteoporosis Foundation include:
- One in two women and up to one in four men will break a bone in their lifetime due to osteoporosis. For women, the incidence is greater than that of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined.
- Twenty four percent of hip fracture patients age 50 and over die in the year following the fracture.
- Every year, of nearly 300,000 hip fracture patients, one-quarter end up in nursing homes and half never regain previous function.
This outlook can be frightening, but the good thing is we can take proactive steps regarding our bone health. Our bones are living tissue and are constantly changing, and our bodies have an amazing ability to adapt to our surroundings and the stresses that are placed upon it.
The ideal time to work on preventing osteoporosis is in our youth, as our bones are continually growing until we reach peak bone mass around the mid-20’s. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, a 10% increase in peak bone mass in children will reduce the risk of an osteoporotic fracture during adult life by 50%. That is a pretty good return on an investment in good nutrition and physical activity as a child and young adult.
But what do we do if are in our 30’s, 40’s, 50’s or beyond? Or what if we have already been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis? Can we still take steps to prevent osteoporosis or mitigate is effects? There are many risk factors that we cannot change such as age, sex, and family history. But we can take proactive steps regarding our diet and physical activity. In regards to physical activity, one principal we can explore is Wollf’s Law (developed by German anatomist and surgeon Julius Wolff), which states that bones grow and strengthen under pressure. If loading on a particular bone increases, the bone will remodel itself over time to become stronger to resist that sort of loading. In other words, bones strengthen just where they need it the most. A prevalent theory is that you need high-impact activities, such as running and weight lifting, to produce this stress and build bone mass.
However, yoga has been proven to be a very effective tool in strengthening our bones. Yoga can effect the entire body, with standing poses stressing the large bones of the hips and legs, back bends effecting the spine, and inversions strengthening the wrists and shoulders. Yoga produces both the stress of dynamic loading when moving into a pose and static loading by holding a pose. Dr. Loren Fishman, Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City, has had tremendous success working with individuals diagnosed with osteoporosis. He conducted a study among patients diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia (a precursor to the disease) in which the individuals practiced a pre-determined set of yoga poses for merely 10 minutes per day over a two-year period. The results showed that their bone density increased, and even in patients in whom bone density did not significantly increase, they experienced an improvement in posture, balance and strength, which can be protective against fractures as well. If you are interested in reading more about his study and the results, please visit www.sciatica.org.
During the month of May, spend some time on your yoga mat in order to — borrowing the slogan from National Osteoporosis Month — “Break Free from Osteoporosis.”
As with any physical activity, please consult your physician regarding any other health risk factors and find a yoga class that offers the appropriate modifications for your level.