Most of us try to be health conscious and look after our bodies. We try to eat a healthy diet and take regular exercise so that we can maintain an active, fulfilling life, lose weight, and look after our hearts. But have you ever considered the role exercise plays in helping to prevent our bones from becoming fragile?

This is referred to as Osteoporosis, which literally means porous bones. We take it for granted that our bones will support our bodies, protect our internal organs and perform on demand, but unless we actually break one, have problems with joints or become less mobile, our skeleton is not something we tend to think about.

The bones of our skeleton are constantly changing. During childhood and adolescence they grow rapidly and become more solid. However, by the age of 25 years the amount of bone in the skeleton has reached its peak. This is known as ‘peak bone mass’ and can vary from person to person. Such factors as your gender, calcium intake, physical exercise and genetics contribute to the density of your bones at around this age.

Men tend to experience less bone loss as they age. It is following the menopause that women have a rapid loss in bone density.

Risk factors for both men and women include:

  • Steroid therapy and early menopause
  • Heavy drinking, smoking and poor diet
  • Low body weight
  • Past history of fracture and physical inactivity

As usual we’re in ‘use it or lose it’ territory. If you expose your skeleton to the loads and forces that exercise brings, the body responds by building more bone. The flip side of this and proof of the necessity of bone building exercises, can be seen in astronauts who spend months in zero gravity. Even with exercises designed to mimic the forces of gravity a reduction in bone density has been observed.

There are usually no warning signs or symptoms for Osteoporosis, but occasionally individuals may notice a small loss in height, and occasionally a routine MRI scan for back pain may diagnose a vertebral fracture in the spine, due to reduced bone density. There are many types of bone density tests available and you should consult your GP if you have any worries.

Concern within the medical profession over the increased numbers of fractures associated with Osteoporosis has stimulated more research into its prevention. Studies suggest that ‘regular physical exercise can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and delay the physiological decrease in bone mineral density’ (Ernst. E. 1998). Prevention, as always, is far better than waiting for a cure. Dr. Ifty Ahmed a researcher at Nottingham University is developing a ‘liquid bone’ that consists of microscopic spheres of calcium phosphate combined with the patient’s own stem cells. This can be injected into vulnerable areas, stimulating bone growth. He says, “Our aim would be to use screening to spot people who are at risk, then strengthen their bones before they get fractures”. This is all very hopeful for the future but it’s important that you start to strengthen your bones today by exercising regularly.