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Published on January 11, 2016

Strengthening your bones is easier than you thinkStrengthening your bones is easier than you think

As you age and lose bone density – in some cases enough to make osteoporosis a real health risk – consider weight training.

Not those heavy weights at the gym. Rather, three- to seven-pound barbells that are not intimidating and can be used at home any time of the day.

That’s some key advice of Catherine Hoell, PT, a clinical physical therapist at Cape Cod Healthcare.

You have four pillars of fitness – strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance – and they all have to be working at the same time for maximum health, she said.

“Preserving and building functional strength is a huge component if you want to maintain your quality of life and be active into your older years on Cape Cod,” said Hoell. “To build strength, any kind of resistance works, from light weights to bands. There are ways to build strength just by using your own body weight as resistance.”

Hoell’s advice comes in the wake of a new study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness which found that low-weight, high-repetition resistance training increases bone mineral density in adults, challenging assumptions that heavy weight-training is required to build bone mineral density.

Participants who completed the study experienced up to 8 percent bone mineral density increases in the legs, pelvis, arms and spine.  Postmenopausal women and those with osteopenia – low bone mineral density -benefited the most, as much as 22 to 29 percent.

“These findings challenge the traditional thought that high-weight, low-repetition exercise is the ideal way to increase bone mineral density,” said Jinger Gottschall, associate professor and lead researcher of the study conducted at Pennsylvania State University.

“This is such a profound finding because low-weight, high-repetition exercise is easily attainable by anybody and everybody. This approach could help at-risk populations minimize the risk of osteoporosis,” Gottschall said.

Participants in the low-weight, high-repetition program specifically demonstrated an 8 percent increase in leg bone mineral density, a 7 percent increase in pelvis bone mineral density, a 4 percent increase in arm bone mineral density and a 4 percent increase in spine bone mineral density.

Hoell, who practices at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Oppenheim Medical Center in Chatham, said that because the Penn State study represents a small sample size, it may not be statistically significant. However, its message is important and confirmed by her experience, that demonstrates that light weight training and even resistance-band exercises do work.

At the same time, Hoell cautioned that no one should begin any weight training, including with light-weight barbells, without consulting a physician or physical therapist.

“You need to be screened. Everybody’s age, weight and overall physical condition must be factored into the appropriate weight and resistance training, “she emphasized.

She also stressed the actual dangers of lifting heavy weights, for older people.

“For many people as they age, you can cause tissue failure by lifting too much weight. As we age, our muscles lose their elasticity and become more fibrotic.  And that can lead to muscle tears and permanent damage, ” Hoell explained.

“When you are in your 20s and 30s, you may get tendonitis from heavy lifting. But in your sixth, seventh and eighth decade of life, you can develop tendenosis,” she said. “Tendonitis is inflammation, which can be treated, but tendenosis is irreparable.  As we get older, it’s not the amount of weight as much as the quality of movement that counts.”

Hoell recommends creating a progressive, light-weight training program with a professional to prevent, or at least minimize injury.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that by 2020, about 14 million people over the age of 50 in the U.S. are expected to have osteoporosis and another 47 million will suffer from low bone mass.

Hips represent the most common and devastating fracture site for elderly people with osteoporosis. Penn State’s Gottschall emphasized that a large proportion of fall-related deaths are due to complications following a hip fracture. One out of five hip fracture patients die within a year of their injury.

“You can build strength at any age,” Hoell said. “It’s very exciting to work with people as old as 90 and see their quality of life improve with new found strength.”