Is Walking Enough To Build Strong Bones? Here’s What the Science Has To Say

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Have you ever wondered why activity monitors suggest a certain number of steps per day? It’s no secret that prioritizing walking in your regular routine can lead to some pretty stellar health benefits. But does walking improve bone density? Sure does.

And anything that can help keep your skeleton strong is a smart idea: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 51.5 percent of adult women over the age of 50 have low bone mass (a precursor of osteoporosis) of the femur neck or lumbar spine, says Rachelle Reed, PhD, senior director of health science and research for Orangetheory Fitness. “Osteoporosis is a skeletal disorder in which bones weaken and risk of fracture is increased,” she explains.

Experts In This Article

Going on regular hot girl walks (aka long leisurely strolls) is one way to help prevent that weakness. In a 1994 study in The American Journal of Medicine1, researchers found that women who walked more than 7.5 miles per week had higher bone density than those who walked less than one mile per week, effectively revealing that walking might help to slow the rate of bone loss in the legs.

As tempted as you may be to immediately run out your door to power-walk around your neighborhood, get this: There are some surprising strategies experts recommend when it comes to using walking workouts to build up the bones.

The secrets behind walking for bone health

A 2022 study in PLoS One of 222 premenopausal women found that those who walked briskly regularly had higher bone mineral density than those who rarely or never did. Based on their findings3, the researchers came up with recommended duration and frequency of walking for bone health: They suggest heading out for a fast-paced stroll that's at least 30 minutes long three or more times per week to prevent bone loss (at least in premenopausal women).

How does walking help improve bone density? As the study authors wrote, "walking is a rhythmic, dynamic, aerobic activity. It [strengthens] the major muscle groups of the legs, limb girdle and lower trunk, as well as muscles of the shoulder girdle, increases the flexibility and stability of cardinal joints, improves cardiovascular and respiratory functions, and promotes energy expenditure and weight control." With each step, you're bearing weight on your bones in your legs and spine, spurring them to grow stronger.

Strolling at a super slow pace might also be a surprisingly effective strategy when you're walking mainly to improve bone density, according to Loren Fishman, MD, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City and advisor to MyYogaTeacher.

“The cells that build bones, the osteoblasts, require a certain amount of continuous pressure for 12 seconds before they start the bone-building process,” he explains. “Therefore, strange as it may sound, slowing down your walking, so that instead of alternating feet two or three times in 12 seconds, actually staying on one foot for that length of time or longer is likely to [hone in on] the femur (thigh bone), where the worst fractures take place.”

For a bonus, switch up the direction of your steps to challenge your balance (still at that 12-second-per-step pace). “Side walking would have the advantage of strengthening the femoral neck, and also the hip and spine, since a lot of rotational and left-right motion is bound to occur,” Dr. Fishman explains.

Other ways to build up your bones

If you’re thinking 12 seconds is a long time to spend on one step, you’re not wrong—it’s unlikely to be a comfortable pace to walk around the block. In fact, standing on one leg for 12 seconds is more like a balance challenge akin to what you might practice in yoga or tai chi. That’s not a coincidence: Both modalities have been shown to be top bone health exercises that can complement walking for bone health.

Experts at Harvard Medical School have found that the slow movements involved in the Chinese martial art of tai chi can improve balance, reducing the risk of falls, and may even protect against age-related bone loss.

And according to a study published in the open-access journal Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation2, a 12-minute daily yoga regimen can reverse osteoporotic bone loss. “This yoga study documents bone-building comparable [to] or better than the most popular drugs,” Dr. Fishman marvels. “There have been no fractures, herniated discs, or serious injuries of any kind to date, with over 200,000 hours of people practicing it, approximately 80 percent of whom have osteopenia or osteoporosis.”

In addition to boosting bone density, the asanas (poses) involved in yoga have been shown to improve posture, balance, strength, and range of motion, as well as refine coordination, he says, which means you're less at risk of a dangerous fall. “Furthermore, unlike the medications, [yoga] can be continued for as many years as one lives,” Dr. Fishman adds.

Ready to get flowing? Try this 20-minute strength-building yoga routine:

Old-fashioned strength training is another top bone-strengthening activity experts often recommend. “Bone growth is stimulated through applying a load on the bone as a result of body weight or the pull of a muscle during resistance exercise, such as exercises using light weights or resistance bands,” Evan Johnson, PT, director of Och Spine Care Outpatient Physical Therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian, previously explained to Well+Good about exercises for osteoporosis. That can be done through weight lifting or bands, as he points out, but can also be accomplished with bodyweight exercises like planks and lunges, as well as dancing or doing Pilates.

Just be sure your hitting both your lower body and upper body for osteoporosis prevention throughout your entire skeleton. “Increasing bone density of the arms and wrists requires that you either bear weight on the arms—performing exercises on all fours or a push-up—or perform resistance training with bands or weight,” Dr. Johnson says. “In resistance training, the pull of the muscles on the bone stimulates the bone to grow.” As the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons points out, walking can increase bone density in the spine and legs, but it won't do anything for the bones in your wrist, for instance.

Also helpful to know: What doesn't help build bone are totally non-weight-bearing exercises like swimming or cycling. Although those workouts offer other great health benefits, the Mayo Clinic points out they won't spur any bone density improvement. Low-impact exercise will be kind to your joints, but the more weight you're putting on the bones, they more likely they are to grow stronger. That said, if you've been diagnosed with osteoporosis, run any workout plans by your doctor first to make sure they're safe for your body.

Something to keep in mind...

When it comes to working out for bone density, Dr. Reed points out that the best approach is a multi-faceted one. “Bone mineral density typically peaks by age 30. At that point, the focus shifts from accumulating bone mass to maintaining or attenuating the loss of bone mass,” she says. “The best way to maintain bone mass is a well-rounded exercise program that includes both aerobic and resistance training.” That means following the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity) and at least two days of resistance training on all major muscle groups each week.

And don't forget that your diet also plays a huge role in bone health. Be sure your meals regularly include nutrients for bone health, like calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium. And don't sleep on drinking tea for bone health—it is packed with antioxidants that can help build and protect our bone cells.

So get your sweat on in different ways on different days; your skeleton will thank you.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Krall, E A, and B Dawson-Hughes. “Walking is related to bone density and rates of bone loss.” The American journal of medicine vol. 96,1 (1994): 20-6. doi:10.1016/0002-9343(94)90111-2
  2. Lu, Yi-Hsueh et al. “Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss.” Topics in geriatric rehabilitation vol. 32,2 (2016): 81-87. doi:10.1097/TGR.0000000000000085
  3. Lan, Yong-Sheng, and Yu-Juan Feng. “The volume of brisk walking is the key determinant of BMD improvement in premenopausal women.” PloS one vol. 17,3 e0265250. 16 Mar. 2022, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0265250

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