The best exercises for building and maintaining strong bones are weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening activities.
Weight-bearing exercises are any activity performed standing up, such as walking, running and dancing. When your feet and legs support your weight, your bones have to work harder, making them stronger.
Muscle-strengthening exercises are any activity that requires your muscles to work harder than normal, like lifting weights. This type of resistance exercise works the tendons that attach muscle to bone, which in turn boosts bone strength.
It must be stressed that all forms of physical activity will help to keep your bones fit for purpose and reduce the risk of falling. Good balance, co-ordination and stamina, as well as the confidence that comes from being regularly active, will all reduce your chance of a fall.
Check out the government’s physical activity recommendations for early childhood, young people, adults and older adults.
Physical activity is only one of the building blocks for healthy bones – the others being a healthy balanced diet and avoiding certain risk factors.
Key bone-building years
The key bone-building years are those up to our mid-20s, when the skeleton is growing. This is a critical period during which we have the opportunity to build as much bone as possible to last us for a lifetime.
The gains achieved during youth put the skeleton in a better position to withstand the bone loss that occurs with age. After about 35, bone loss gradually increases as part of the natural ageing process.
However, regular physical activity, including bone-friendly exercises, will help keep bones strong and slow the rate of bone loss, even in people with osteoporosis. Leading an active lifestyle can halve your risk of breaking a bone, particularly in your hip, according to Age UK.
High impact exercises
For bone strength, long exercise sessions are not always necessary and brief bouts of high impact exercise are sufficient. High impact exercises, which are anything involving running or jumping, provide a jolt to the skeleton, including the hips and spine.
“A few jolts are enough to stimulate the bone-strengthening process in the body,” says Sarah Leyland of the National Osteoporisis Society. For example, running up 10 steps provides 10 jolts on the way up and 10 jolts on the way down. Do this five times a day and you have clocked up 100 jolts, which is likely to produce a positive effect on bone strength.
You can also target specific bones. Research found the bones in the serving arm of tennis pros were stronger than in their non-serving arm. So make sure you get the balance right!
“Beyond our 30s, physical activity is unlikely to strengthen bones but it will help reduce the rate of natural bone loss,” says Leyland.
High impact and bending exercises while lifting heavy loads place a lot of stress on the bones in the spine and are not recommended for people at risk of a fracture.
However, low impact activities, such as walking and step machines may help slow the rate of bone loss and improve your balance and muscle strength, which will help reduce your risk of falling.
Find out what activities and exercises are good for your bones depending on your age, level of fitness and bone strength.
Childhood, adolescence and early adulthood up to mid-20s, when the skeleton is growing, are the time for building strong bones.
Young people aged five to 18 are advised to do vigorous intensity activities that strengthen muscle and bones, on at least three days a week.
Examples of muscle and bone-strengthening activities:
Under 5s not walking:
- tummy time
- active play
Under 5s walking unaided:
- running games
Children and young adults:
- ball games, such as football, basketball, hockey and netball
- racket sports, such as badminton, squash and tennis
- martial arts, such as karate and taekwondo
- skipping and jumping
- body weight exercises such as press-ups and squats/lunges
- exercise to music such as aerobics and boxercise
- rock climbing
- dance-related activities
Bone loss years
To reduce the rate of natural bone loss that occurs from age 35 onwards, aim to do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
See the ‘children and young adults’ section above for examples of relevant activities.
Examples of other suitable activities for adults include:
- brisk walking, including Nordic walking
- moderate-resistance weightlifting
- stair climbing
- carrying or moving heavy loads such as groceries
- exercising with resistance bands
- heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling
- cross-training machines
Try Strength and Flex, a five-week exercise plan for beginners to improve your strength and flexibility.
People with osteoporosis
If you have osteoporosis or fragile bones, regular physical activity can help to keep bones strong and reduce the risk of a fracture in the future.
Depending on your risk of fracture, you may need to avoid some types of high impact exercises. However, if you are otherwise fit and healthy and already enjoy regular exercise then you should be able to continue.
Check out the exercise resources on the National Osteoporosis Society website. Speak to your doctor and ask if there is an exercise referral scheme in your area that caters for people with osteroporosis.
People at high risk of fracture or with existing fractures
If you’re at high risk of fracture or have broken bones already, staying active will help reduce your risk of falls and fractures, improve balance, strength and stamina, and reduce pain.
You may be fearful of falling but if you stop moving, you will slowly lose strength and balance, which will make you more prone to falls and fracture.
Avoid high impact exercises that involve jumping and running and activities that involve bending forwards and twisting at the waist, such as touching your toes, sit-ups, golf, tennis, bowling and some yoga poses.
Recommended exercises to reduce your risk of falls involve a combination of strength, balance and endurance training:
- strength training exercises using body weight
- flexibility exercises
- tai chi
- low-impact dancing
- low-impact aerobics
- stair climbing
- cross-training machines
Try these gentle exercise routines:
- sitting exercises
- strength exercises
- balance exercises
- flexibility exercises
Contact the National Osteoporosis Society for advice about the type of exercise most appropriate to your circumstances. Ask your doctor about falls prevention services you can be referred to.
For more fall prevention tips download Get Up and Go: A Guide to Staying Steady (PDF).