Why talk about osteoporosis?
More than ten million Americans have received the diagnosis of osteoporosis(1), a condition characterized by weakening of bone tissue that can potentially lead to fractures. Another thirty four million Americans have been diagnosed with osteopenia, a condition preceding osteoporosis, when bone mineral density is lower than considered normal.(2) If you or someone close to you has this diagnosis, there is often many decisions to be made on how best to manage the condition and best ways to continue a healthy lifestyle.
What happens when we are diagnosed and what can we do to stay both safe and active?
If you have received the diagnosis of osteopenia or osteoporosis, you might start to worry about increased risk of fractures. What are the best ways of preventing them? Should you be changing your behavior and activities? While it is important to understand what is safe and helpful, and what’s not, we don’t want to become fearful of movement and physical activity. When we start limiting our activities due to a concerning diagnosis it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: as we modify how we move our bodies and what we do day-to-day, we become less mobile, lose function, and may actually become more prone to injury. In fact, forty percent of age-related physical decline can be attributed to decreased activity (disuse). The old adage “use it or lose it” becomes even more true with age.
The biggest predictor of fractures is not osteoporosis itself, it's falling. Risk of fractures is correlated with falling more than it is with osteoporosis. This statistic shows that bone density by itself does not lead to fractures. Rather, it's the loss of strength, balance, and neuromuscular coordination that can accompany this condition.
Just like everything else in our bodies, bones change as we age. There is nothing we can do about the very fact of aging, but we do have some control over how we age and how we maintain our function. Every aspect of our life is important in determining how well we function. It’s not just a number describing our bone density. It is how we sleep, how we eat, how we move, how we spend our time every day.
How yoga helps
There are three important ways that yoga helps us prevent fractures.
Yoga may help build bones directly, similarly to strength training. When we engage muscles the tension that is created is pulling on bones, stimulating and strengthening them. Although commonly we associate yoga with increased flexibility, building strength and balance is an important aspect of the practice, and is emphasized by teachers familiar with the needs of older adults.
But strength of the bones themselves is only part of the equation. Just as important is yoga’s benefit for overall muscle power, better balance, and improved neuromuscular coordination. Improved strength, balance and coordination make us less likely to fall, and even if we do fall, we are able to support our body during the fall more safely, and are less likely to injure ourselves.
Yoga also works with the mind, and helps change our mindset and contribute to a healthier lifestyle, including better sleep, better nutrition (another aspect that has a great effect on bone health), and lowered stress, all of which contributes to our overall health and longevity.
Safety precautions do exist, and if you have low bone density it is important to seek out a yoga teacher or yoga therapist familiar with safe approaches. If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, one thing to avoid is loaded flexion of the spine, which can put excessive pressure on the vertebra. This can happen when we perform forward bends in yoga. Forward bends are safe when performed by hinging at the hips and keeping the spine neutral, rather than by rounding the spine. To properly hinge at the hips, bend your knees and keep the spine neutral.
With reasonable safety precautions in mind you can continue to safely engage in the activities you enjoy, and perhaps even add new ones to your daily routine, making them part of a healthy aging process.
(2) Cleveland Clinic
Sign up here for the Summer 2022 session which will focus on yoga for fall prevention by emphasizing balance, coordination as well as lower and upper body strength, incorporating latest research findings on the benefits of yoga for fall prevention.