Recumbent Biking or Walking for Osteopenia? Q & A

Recumbent Biking or Walking for Osteopenia? Q & A

Biking is one of my favorite activities and great for the heart, but not weight bearing or helpful for bones.
Biking is one of my favorite activities and great for the heart, but not weight bearing or helpful for bones.

“I am 59 and have been diagnosed with osteopenia. I also have asthma and cannot really do outside walking. Is there any way to help bone loss using a recumbent bike? I have arthritic knees which is why I have the bike. But I could walk through the house. What would your opinion be on the recumbent bike verses walking through the house for helping to maintain bones? If it is walking, how long do you walk? Thank you. Your video is superb!”

Hi Lani,

Thanks and nice to hear from you! As the years go by, it can be a challenge finding that balance between protecting our joints and keeping fit. Osteopenia is sure a wake-up call for taking action to stop further bone loss.

Have you ever seen a physical therapist (PT) about exercises for your knees? It could be very beneficial for you. How are your knees with the leg exercises in my workout? Sometimes, as the muscles that support the knees get stronger, there can be less knee pain. But, everyone’s knees are unique, so a PT’s advice could be crucial to your fitness.

A recumbent bike is terrific for strengthening your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. If those don’t work well, nothing else will either! But, biking of any kind isn’t weight bearing or considered to be beneficial for bones, unless you’re standing up on the pedals.

The two types of exercise that scientists know the most about that build and maintain bone density are weight-bearing and strength training exercises. Weight bearing means on your feet so that the whole skeleton needs to work against gravity. But, if being on your feet is too painful for your knees, you’ll have to work around that and get your cardiovascular/aerobic exercise in any way that you comfortably can. Just make sure that you strength train two to three times a week to compensate for not doing weight bearing exercise.

On your feet, weight bearing exercise is good for bones.
On your feet, weight bearing exercise is good for bones.

How about standing up more often throughout the day? You don’t need to stand up all day, but stand up frequently. This gives gravity a chance to work on our bodies and bones. In her book, Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, Dr. Joan Vernikos, a NASA scientist for 30 years explains why simply standing up often is great for your skeleton. “…if you stand up 15 times over the course of , say, one hour, your body sees it as 15 new stimuli and responds every time you stand…Consequently, standing up 15 times throughout your day…is more effective than standing and sitting 15 times in rapid succession.”—in terms of the effects of gravity on the body and bones. She emphasizes that the pull of gravity is “…from head to toe, so gravity’s maximum effect is felt when you are standing.”

Have a look at my DDM: Daily Dose of Movement blog post for more information.

It can be fun, finding excuses to stand up frequently. Whenever I pick up the phone to make a call or type a text, I stand up. When it rings, I stand up. I often put my laptop on a box when I type or if I’m sitting, stand up every 10 minutes.

Now, as far as how long to walk, I’d get in at least the minimum physical activity recommendation of 30 minutes per day. In your home, you could use a walking DVD, like one of Leslie Sansone’s, to make it more interesting and keep your intensity up. Research has shown that people who are on their feet at least 4 hours a day have stronger bones than those who aren’t.

I admire your commitment to being active and taking action to help maintain your bones. Excellent research shows that bone loss can be slowed or halted with a good strength training program and weight bearing exercise. Keep up the great work, Lani!

Comments (Scroll to the bottom to leave your comment)

  1. By doing shorter workouts, rotating various body segments, does that mean one needs to work out 6 times per week in order to get the 2 full workouts suggested? I would tend not to do the entire workout as I start to lose motivation and like to mix it up. However, I don’t relish working out with resistance training 6 times per week. What might be your suggestion for getting a healthy workout plan in place without daily workouts?

    I just turned 61 and have had a tendency to fall in the last few years. Due to a recent knee injury, I am starting to get back into resistance training. I enjoy walking my dogs but live in a hot, desert climate so it becomes prohibitive to get much of a walk in during summer months. I do have a workout club (part of an HOA) and have access to treadmills, elliptical, etc.

    Thank you for any information you can provide.

  2. Yes, Nancy, that’s the idea that you’d need to do 6 short workouts instead of 2 longer ones. Many people can’t fit two long workouts into their schedule, so a little bit is better than none at all. But, I’m with you in that I like to get the one longer one done, twice a week, and then do other fun cardiovascular activities like hiking with my friends throughout the week.

    Regarding your balance: Strength training helps give you the physical strength to break a fall if you lose your balance. Agility can be improved with dancing and side stepping types of moves. If you have my DVDs, incorporate some of the warm-up and balance moves into your daily walk or even a pick-me-up in the afternoon. Balance tends to diminish as we age, but can be rebuilt with consistent balance, strength, and agility movements.
    Best wishes!

  3. I’ll be 68 soon and i had my bone densitometry last week …found out i have osteopenia and was prescribed alovell. …once a week..i exercise everyday….once a week aerobics and 6 days a week zumba….and that is for one hour….is my exercise too strenuous for me… having a tolerable pain at my back…can you advise me on what to do…i dont want to take medication as with others…thnks…

  4. Hi Lucila,
    Whether you are in the osteoporosis or osteopenia (low bone density) range or have had a fragility fracture with normal bone density, the National Osteoporosis Foundation gives these guidelines for moving safely during daily activities and when exercising:
    Keep the spine in a neutral position and avoid forward flexions where you round your back, such as toe touches. Avoid twisting or side bending to the full range of motion, especially quickly.
    Keeping a neutral spine means no matter whether you’re lying down, sitting, standing, or even swimming, your spine is elongated with excellent, upright posture, with the normal curves of the spine: going in a little at the neck, out a little at the upper back, and in a little at the lower back. Basically, don’t bend forward when you need to reach or bend down, but hinge back with the hips.
    Any pain in your spine is reason to get it checked out by your healthcare provider.
    Since the most is known about weight-bearing aerobic activity and strength training for healthy bones, you would benefit from adding a twice-weekly strength training program to your routine.
    You want to make sure that you’re not over-training. Are you feeling full of energy from your current routine of 7 days a week aerobics/Zumba? If you’re feeling tired, you could cut back, but replace some of that time with a walk or the strength training, on non-consecutive days.
    Have a look at my post, Keeping Exercise Safe Over-Fifty and in Zumba Classes for more tips about Zumba.

  5. On my recumbent bike, which I bought because my hips became too painful to use my Nordic Track, I have been able to increase the resistance gradually so that I am pushing hard with my legs. Why would this exercise not provide stimulus for leg, thigh and hip bones like other kinds of strength training? (I do upper and lower body strength training at a gym twice a week in addition to using the recumbent bike for 40-45 mins 4-5 times a week.)

  6. Dear Judith,
    Your recumbent bike will be giving you a wonderful cardiovascular workout and some moderate muscle strengthening of the legs.
    When you can go longer than approximately a minute with any exercise, you’re using endurance/slow-twitch muscle cells.
    Muscle strengthening exercise, or strength training, challenges fast-twitch muscle cells which give the most power and strength. To be considered muscle strengthening, an exercise can’t be maintained for more than around 10-12 repetitions or around one minute.
    With that said, there is some cross-over with some of both cells working with cycling and that’s why it’s moderately muscle strengthening.
    A bonus with strength training is that it has a very positive effect on the ability to produce more power on a bike, so you’ll get a better cardio workout if you do both strength training and cycling, just like you’re doing. Keep it up!
    Best wishes,

  7. Walking has a modest benefit for bones and isn’t enough of a stimulus by itself to improve bone health. Progressive strength training is also needed for the stimulus it has on bone-building cells. Casual walking would be about the same as simply standing, with hiking on flat trails at a brisk pace being better. The brisk pace adds more impact and that’s helpful for bones, especially the lower body and hip bones.

  8. My bone scan now show osteopenia. My oncologists says this is probably caused by Arimidex that I am needing to take for breast cancer. I H ave been on it for 3 years and have 2 yrs to go.She is suggesting Relcast or Fosomax. After research,I would rather not take these and treat it naturally.
    Opinions please. Medication complicated decision. Thank you.

  9. Judith, I’m glad to hear that you’re 3 years out from your breast cancer. Well done!
    Keep doing all the exercise and nutrition lifestyle strategies available to you. Consistent exercise—schedule it and don’t miss.
    Strength training 2-3x/wk, weight-bearing aerobics, posture exercises, and balance and agility exercises. They will help keep your bones stimulated to stay strong and help you stay on your feet and not fall down—the major cause of fractures. Good nutrition will give you the raw materials for your bones and muscles.
    With all that said, if you’re taking a bone-depleting medication, but one that could save your life, it’s important to keep taking it. Keep in mind that a natural and lifestyle approach might not be enough to ward off the bone-depleting effects of the Arimidex. Medications are powerful and can thwart our best intentions to live well, naturally, so please keep discussing your options with your doctor. Thank you.
    Best wishes,

  10. I have osteoporosis. Have been getting prolia shots for the last 2 years. Recently, I have been in pain in hips and lower spine. Have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis. I have been fast walking 40 minutes 4 days a week. The walking has now become painful. What now? I have gotten a recombinant bike with exercise bands attached thinking this would be gentler on my arthritis. Now, I see from the posts this will not help my osteoporosis.

  11. Sharon, since you’re experiencing pain to the point of walking being uncomfortable, I’d suggest you see your healthcare provider about the pain and then get a referral to a physical therapist for guidance on ways to exercise that won’t hurt. It’s so individual. Walking is good for bones, but it’s not enough for bones. You also need strength training for the stimulation it gives to muscles and bones. If walking doesn’t work for you now with the osteoarthritis, another kind of aerobic exercise, even if it’s not weight-bearing, will help keep your heart and circulatory system in good running condition. If those don’t work well, nothing else will either. You can stand up frequently during your day and get weight-bearing movements that way. There’s always a way to work around limitations. Exercise is anti-inflammatory which helps with arthritis. The trick is, finding the right one that works for you. Good for you to keep at it!

  12. Regarding the post about recent falls. See your doctor about getting a gait assessment. You might have a weaker foot that is fatiguing and causing you to fall. It happened to me but physical therapy has eradicated the problem. Good luck!