Effects of Exercise on Bones and Joints

Osteoporosis is a lifestyle disease of sedentary cultures — it is practically unknown in tribal societies where life-long physical activity is the norm.

Osteoporosis is not arthritis. Arthritis is a degeneration of the cushioning cartilage in the joints. The synovium (a smooth lining cushioning every joint that excretes the lubricating synovial fluid) becomes inflamed and deteriorates, leading to pain and swelling. If the synovial fluid dries up then the bone ends grind together and wear away, or they overcompensate and build up spurs of bone poking into the joint.

Calcium and phosphorus are the key elements in understanding osteoporosis. They are inorganic ions or minerals which combine with organic protein molecules to form the teeth and bones. The connective tissue gives bones the ability to change shape and absorb shock, and the calcium gives bones their strength.

Calcium has other roles in the body, such as blood clotting, nerve transmission, and muscle contraction. The calcium in bones is often “mined” if calcium is needed elsewhere in the body. As soon as you eat more calcium, the calcium in the mined area is replaced.

Calcium levels in the bones decrease with age, making the whole skeleton weaker, less dense, and more brittle. Dairy products have been marketed as a way of preventing the disease osteoporosis. Other research suggests you need to have good levels of calcium when young, as the rate of decrease in calcium is constant throughout life, no matter how much calcium is in your diet as you age.

Whatever the facts, putting calcium inside your body will do little good if your body is not stimulated to increase the strength of bones, and the best way of doing this is to stimulate the whole body with gentle exercise.

Exercise puts a mild strain on the connective tissues of the body — muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones.

The principle of super-compensation means the human body is capable of getting better the more it is used. Your body over-adapts to regular stress and strain so it’s easier the next time.

Train your biceps and it’ll get stronger, better shaped, better toned, and more efficient. Train the femur (your upper leg bone) and it will get stronger, more efficient, and denser.

The next principle is called “specificity”. Bone density is activity-specific and specific to the area of the body being put under strain. A classic study of tennis players found that the bone density in the arm used to swing the racket was 30 percent denser than the other arm!

The exercise you choose must put a mild strain on the areas of your body that will show deterioration in structural strength with age — your hips, back, and shoulders. Walking or running will stimulate hip joint structural strength, but will do little to improve the bone density of your upper body. If you want to increase the strength of the bones in your upper body, you’ll need some form of exercise that exercises the upper body muscles.

The best types of this exercise involve resistance and the large muscle groups, and the best place to find these types of exercise is at your local fitness center. Other forms of manual work that involve digging, lifting, or carrying will also exercise the upper-body muscles and bones.

There are several organizations running circuit or weight training classes specifically for people with existing bone density problems. If you are apparently healthy and have a clearance from your doctor, there’s no reason why you can’t head down to your local fitness center for a fitness assessment, some counseling and planning, and an exercise program, no matter what your age or previous exercise experience.

Take this issue seriously, as osteoporosis is increasing, yet it’s easily preventable through a good diet and regular physical activity. Look at yourself. If your muscles and skin are getting soft and flabby then your bones are as well, and you need exercise. Do something about it.

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