When thinking about aging, our first point of concern is our skin. It’s rare that we consider protecting our bone density as a primary way to prevent aging. With average life expectancy increasing, risk factors like hormonal changes with age, low Vitamin D intake through diet and lack of healthy sunlight exposure, and other comorbidities like obesity have more of an opportunity to impact bone health. It’s time we make an equal investment in maintaining healthy bones that we do in our skincare regimens. And just like our skin, it’s time we aim to protect our bone health earlier in life than when we begin the aging process.
Vitamin D and calcium are the most essential nutrients in maintaining healthy bones. Genetically, studies show that Indians have enzymes as well as variations in our DNA that don’t always allow enough of the active form of Vitamin D needed to build and maintain bone. Therefore, as a population, we are built smaller and more delicately than many other ethnicities right from birth. Additionally, lifestyle factors that lead to lack of sunlight exposure, lack of calcium intake, lack of fortified foods, lack of exercise and a tendency toward vegetarian diets combined with an aging population compound this genetic predisposition toward lower bone density into a serious public health concern.
Given that we can’t change things genetically, we need to be more aware of diet and lifestyle habits pertaining to osteoporosis—a condition referring to “porous bones”—which results from low bone density. Both Vitamin D and calcium together are essential, since Vitamin D helps our body absorb the calcium we take in through our diets. Sunlight converts into Vitamin D through the cholesterol in our skin, so a daily dose of sunshine is good for bone health. Darker skin individuals require a bit more sunlight than fair skin for Vitamin D production due to conversion factors in our skin. Sunscreen protects against UV-B rays, which are the sun’s rays that are essential for Vitamin D production in the skin, so a few minutes (say 15-20 for Indian skin) of regular unprotected sunshine is advisable. Other sources of Vitamin D come from diet, including oily fish and fortified milk. Calcium sources include dairy products, nuts, and leafy green vegetables. And finally, exercise is critical to both prevention as well as reversing the effects of osteoporosis.
While weight-bearing aerobic exercises like walking, dancing and elliptical machines that work directly on the bones in your lower body to slow mineral loss are beneficial, they don’t provide those weight-bearing effects to your whole body. Strength training exercises using either free weights, resistance bands, or your whole bodyweight for the upper body and spine are equally important in osteoporosis prevention. What are also often neglected in many exclusively cardio workouts are flexibility and stability/balance exercises.
A combination between weight-bearing aerobic exercises, strength training exercises, flexibility training and stability exercises are together beneficial for bone density. Stability and balance exercises are especially important to prevent falls and further injury to those that already have fragile bones. Osteoporotic patients should stay away from high impact exercises like running and jumping, and are also at risk for compression fractures in the spine from exercises that involve deep bending and twisting like sit-ups, golf, tennis and even certain yoga positions.
With today’s increased emphasis on steps through activity trackers, what is important to note is that it is not enough for your overall health to simply fulfill a certain number of steps per day. The muscle you build through strength training helps support your joints and bones. After the age range of 30-35, we begin to experience changes in our musculoskeletal health, including breaking down bone faster than we build it and losing lean muscle mass with age. Strength training helps slow and reverse this process in both bone strength and muscle tone. Bones react by adapting to the stress put on them through strength training, and begin to build more bone, thereby increasing bone density. Muscles, even with light weights, build and support our bones and joints so that we maintain overall agility, coordination and balance with age.
Another important aspect of our health impacted by low bone density is our posture. Poor posture can contribute to complications during aging as well as our overall health. Given our current way of life which involves many hours stooped over desks and computers, it is imperative to focus on postural muscles for our wellness. The only way to maintain or improve our posture is to do targeted resistance exercises that force us to build strength in our core, all the way from our hips to the base of our necks in both the front and back of our bodies. Maintaining posture helps us fight gravity and avoid other aches and pains that present later in life, but also aids in autonomic functions like breathing and digestion.
Osteoporosis and overall bone health of Indians is one of the reasons I felt so strongly about bringing Physique 57 to India. Many Indians deal with bone fragility and osteoporosis and don’t always know how to exercise with those issues. According to physician feedback, barre workouts have had global success in maintaining bone density, and some clients have even reported being able to reduce or discontinue medications for bone loss because of the effects of our method. Firstly, barre is a low-impact workout, so risk from injury from the workout itself is already extremely low.
We don’t use any machinery, only our own body weight as resistance, which results in a greater amount of stimulus for bones and muscles (overload). Additionally, we use the core muscles for over 90% of our workout, which improves posture and balance, in turn lowering the risk of falling and correcting for muscular imbalances. Those struggling with bone density issues and unclear on which types of exercise can help reverse those effects should try this method which would help them not only age gracefully, but prevent the bone associated effects of aging and build endurance in their daily lifestyle activities.
Mallika Parekh is a health and wellness expert, and the owner of Physique 57 India, a barre-based workout that originated in New York and launched in Mumbai in 2018.