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How to get strong bones: Why dancing could be the key

There’s more to keeping your bones strong than just drinking milk. Here are 5 surprising ways to boost bone health.

Trudie McConnochie
December 2019

Think strong bones and you probably think calcium. Think exercise and you probably think getting fit. But there’s a piece of the puzzle many of us are missing with this thinking: the bond between exercise and bone health.

Professor Robin Daly, Chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, says keeping bones healthy to avoid developing osteoporosis is not just about eating a calcium-rich diet. It’s also about staying active – and some forms of exercise beat others for bones.

“I’m not sure people are fully aware that bone is a dynamic tissue,” he says. “What’s different from other physiological systems is that bones love stress and strain. There are unique cells within bones called osteocytes that can actually communicate with each other and with other bone cells, telling them to respond and adapt when we load them.”

Prof Daly’s recent study found that a combination of weight-bearing exercises, like dancing and resistance training, is most effective for building bone health.

“When we think about exercise, our motto tends to be: anything is better than nothing for health benefits. But if you really want to improve bone health, you do need to be more targeted in your approach,” he says. “Weight-bearing exercises – like dancing, skipping, running, jumping and tennis, which load the lower limbs in particular – are really good for maintaining bone density.”

These forms of resistance training target muscles, Prof Daly says, creating the positive stress and the strain our bones love – strengthening them as we move around the court or dancefloor.

Food that builds strong bones

Nutrition is crucial, too. “If you’re low in calcium, vitamin D or even protein for muscles, the effects of exercise become blunted,” he explains.

According to the Bone Health Foundation, dairy foods, sardines, spinach and almonds are all good sources of calcium, while the best source of vitamin D is safe sun exposure. Protein is found in lean meat, poultry and fish, as well as dairy products, nuts, eggs, beans and legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Why exercise is important for our bones

Exercise physiologist Carly Ryan says bones adapt to exercise over time, so you need to mix-up your routine every six to eight weeks, or increase the load progressively (with heavier weights, for example).

It’s also important to get moving. The Australian government recommends 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75–150 minutes of vigorous activity, a week, plus resistance training at least two days a week.

“If you follow those [recommendations], there’s a really good chance you’ll meet most of your needs in terms of maintaining bone density,” says Carly. “Moderate intensity is something that’s going to get your heart rate up, and have you huffing and puffing just a little bit. If you want the bone-density benefits, go with weight-bearing exercises within that 150 minutes.” Weight-bearing exercises include walking, playing tennis or netball, hiking or dancing.

5 exercises and activities to boost your bone health

  1. Dancing

    Not only is dancing great for muscles, it also builds flexibility and balance, Carly says.

    “There are lots of different movements involved, which makes it a really good way to challenge the bones. It’s not just moving in a straight line – you’re twisting and moving, and you might even jump, depending on the type of dancing.” From contemporary and Latin to swing and Zumba, find local dance classes of all types online or through community groups.

  2. Walking

    The best thing about walking is that most people can get into it and you can start with as little as 5km a week. Carly says: “If you’ve never been physically active, or haven’t been for a long time, walking is an excellent place to start. As long as you’re walking regularly it will be really helpful. As your bones learn to adjust, it’s a good idea to do other kinds of activities as well – so add a bit of stair-climbing or resistance training.” Locking in a regular walk-and-talk date with a friend ensures you have another motivation to keep up the habit.

  3. Using the stairs

    It’s an oldy but still a goodie: stair climbing targets at-risk parts of the skeleton.

    “We find, particularly in women, loss of bone density seems to happen in the spine, the hips and the femur,” Carly says. “When you go up stairs, the impact is happening through your legs, hips and spine. Resistance in those areas will improve or maintain bone density.”

    The bone benefits from this activity sit on a scale, where the greatest benefits come from running, but walking will still provide some benefit. Make it a habit to tackle stairs anywhere you find them; at work, the mall, or better still: build them into your training walks or runs.

  4. Hiking

    The benefits you get from hiking depend on the terrain.

    “As a general physical activity, hiking is fantastic,” Carly says. “We know that gradients are good – going down and up hills does require a little bit more impact, so that’s always a really good thing [for bones].” Why not discover the best bushwalking tracks in your area to colour your walk with the local flora and fauna?

  5. Lifting weights

    Dumbbells and resistance bands are Carly’s best picks for weight-lifting equipment.

    “They’re cheap, portable pieces of equipment that are really versatile and see fantastic results,” she says. “Do upper-body resistance work in particular – such as bicep curls, shoulder presses and rows – to try to work major muscle groups like your chest, back and shoulders.” Aim for two to three times a week, she adds.

    Buy your own resistance bands or dumbbells, then download an app to help guide you through a program of weight-bearing exercises.

Health warning

If you have osteoporosis or “a hip fracture, vertebral fracture or low-vertebral bone density”, you need to modify physical activity with the help of an expert to make sure it’s safe for you, says Prof Daly.

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