Fitness Tips

If You’re Looking for a Bone-Building Workout, an MD Recommends Making This Surprising Tweak to Your Walks

Photo: Getty Images/Halfpoint Images
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—including for your bones.

And anything that can help keep your skeleton strong is a smart idea: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.8 percent of adult women over the age of 50 have 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.

Going on regular hot girl walks (aka long leisurely strolls) is one way to prevent weakness. In a 1994 study in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers found that women who walk more than 7.5 miles per week had higher bone density than those who walk 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 secret behind walking and bone density

According to Loren Fishman, MD, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City and advisor to MyYogaTeacher, strolling at a faster pace might elevate your heart rate, but it actually won’t work in your favor when it comes to boosting your bone density.

“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. “Without that pressure, there will not be any bone building. 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 a way, 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 promote bone strength.

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 Rehabilitation, 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. “Furthermore, unlike the medications, [yoga] can be continued for as many years as one lives.”

Try this strength-building yoga flow:

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.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, all adults should engage in 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.

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

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