“Why are people with osteoporosis advised not to lift heavy objects when it’s helpful to lift weights?”
Good question! There are many exercises you can do to strengthen your spine, hips, and wrist…the whole skeleton, actually, that don’t involve heavy weight lifting and work as well, without the risk of fracture. Body weight exercises in the right position don’t require large weights to be effective. We’re not going to prevent spine and hip fractures with biceps curls, although they’re good for the wrist and arms.
Now, there are a few things to consider with that question, such as the beneficial effects of the force of gravity, how much weight is too much for the spine, and the beneficial effects of strengthening muscles to strengthen bones.
How Weight Lifting Helps Our Skeleton
The activities of weight training, weight lifting, and strength training actually fall under the category of resistance (also called resistive) training. The idea is to provide some kind of resistance for your muscles to work against in order to strengthen them so that they produce a harder beneficial tug on the adjacent bones when they contract. That harder tug on the bones stimulates the bone building cells to be active.
Protecting Your Spine When Lifting
Yes, lifting things is helpful to increase the beneficial force of gravity, but with osteoporosis, one needs to protect the spine from too much weight. There isn’t a hard and fast rule for how much is too much. Appropriate body alignment is vital when lifting anything. (See the NOF’s, Proper Body Alignment article.)
Even when cooking, a person with fragile bones could lift 10 pounds and fracture if they don’t have good body alignment. Sometimes it can be the awkward position as much as the weight. With Thanksgiving coming up, be careful moving those turkeys, everyone! Get help and/or use good body mechanics by lifting with your legs, not your back. Don’t round your back. Keep any object close to your body so that you’re not stretched out when you’re lifting, which could strain your spine.
Safer Exercises with Osteoporosis or Low Bone Density (Osteopenia)
There are many exercises in the resistance/strength/weight training category that don’t involve putting your spine at risk by lifting heavy weights. Body weight exercises like the squats and lunges are all good examples that benefit the hip bones. Straight-legged leg lifts with ankle weights can also help hip bones while not being risky to the spine or hard on gimpy knees.
Back extensions done prone, on all 4s, or even standing are excellent for back extensor muscle strength. At first, just the weight of lifting arms or legs is usually enough resistance. As you get stronger, using even a small dumbbell or ankle cuff in a very low weight will have a good effect without the risk of a heavy weight in say, a dead lift, for example. Any time that you can strengthen back extensors, you’re getting that beneficial pull on the bones of the spine.
Dr. Mehrsheed Sinaki, of the Mayo Clinic, did research with back extensions in which she put weight directly on the participants’ backs. In my classes, members use small dumbbells and ankle weights instead, but only after the weight of their arms and legs isn’t enough resistance. Slow and steady wins this race!
ACE Fitness has a good “Exercise Library” where you can search (upper right box) for examples of these exercises. As always, though, with bone loss you might need to adapt the exercises to keep good body alignment and not use too much weight.
My Safe Strength Training for Osteoporosis Prevention DVD includes the above exercises with instructions on how to do them safely. My Resistance Band Training for Osteoporosis Prevention DVD only uses body weight and bands for resistance, so there is no worry about lifting too much weight.
Going slowly with your weight lifting will increase intensity so that you don’t need as heavy a weight. Power training is fast weight lifting and the safest way to do it is with weight machines specifically made for fast movement. They are made to slow down as you push harder. Staying safe while using free weights with power training is a little trickier. Get help from a trainer.
The amount of weight a person can lift is all relative. One of my newer class participants is thrilled that she’s up to using 5-6 pounds dumbbells with a couple of the arm exercises. She has beautiful muscle definition, it’s challenging for her and that’s what matters. But again, it’s those body weight exercises like the back extensions and squats that are going to help our spine and hips the most, not how much weight we can lift with a biceps curl.