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The Best Exercise to Protect Your Bones

High-impact activities can keep them strong and guard against fractures


(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)

When it comes to your bones, you’re right to be concerned about keeping them strong.

In 2010, there were 258,000 hospital admissions for hip fractures among people aged 65 and older in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More troubling, one out of five hip fracture patients dies within a year of their injury.

Taking good care of your bones through middle age and beyond will not only help you maintain what you’ve got, it’ll also help slow down the bone loss that happens with age. In the five to seven years after menopause, women can lose up to 20 percent of their bone density, leaving them at risk for osteoporosis and more vulnerable to broken bones and fractures.

One thing you can do to keep your bones strong is to get hopping or jumping. “Higher-impact activities are likely to be most effective at preserving bone,” says Jon Tobias, professor of rheumatology at University of Bristol.

(MORE: Jumping Rope: One Way to Train Youth Back Into Your Body)

High-impact activities may also be the best way to build bone because the stress of landing with force encourages bones to add more mass. These types of activities include running, jumping rope and skiing. Tobias led recent experiments in which male and female adolescents wore activity monitors that tracked their exposure to G forces (a measurement of impact). Those who accumulated the highest G forces also had significantly stronger bones.

Activities that created the kind of G forces needed to build the best bones included running a 10-minute mile and jumping on and off a 15-inch-high box. The researchers are currently conducting similar experiments looking at the effects of impact on older peoples’ bones.

Why is jumping a few times better for bones than running a few miles? “The constant, repeated stress of running desensitizes bone so that it doesn’t react as much,” says Larry Tucker, professor of exercise sciences, Brigham Young University. “But jumping with at least 30 seconds between jumps allows bone to become stressed without becoming desensitized.” And that means it continues to respond to the impact by building more bone mass.

(MORE: Why It's Never Too Late to Start Running)

Tucker and his colleagues proved this with a recent study involving 60 women aged 25 to 50. The groups that performed 10 to 20 jumps twice daily (with 30 seconds of rest between jumps) improved their bone density by 0.5 percent after four months, while the control (non-jumping) group actually lost about 1.3 percent of their bone density.

While Tucker’s research did not look at post-menopausal women, he acknowledges that continuing to stress your bones with this sort of impact could still be beneficial. Ten to twenty jumps, twice a day (with 30 seconds of rest in between each jump) should be the goal, and the more force generated, the better (i.e,. jumping higher). But “start slowly and build up gradually,” he cautions, “since jumping and landing hold greater risk of injury for older women.” Holding onto a sturdy chair or table is helpful, and always talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.

You can also take these steps to strengthen your bones:

  • Cut back on caffeine. It can interfere with calcium absorbtion.
  • Quit smoking. Like caffeine, smoking can hinder calcium getting to your bones.
  • Get enough vitamin D. It works in tandem with calcium to strengthen bones.

Keep your grandkids in mind when it comes to bone health, too. Girls get about a quarter of their adult bone mass between the ages of 12 and 13, while boys get about the same amount around age 14. The biggest factors for their bone health are age, genetics and gender, as well as how much physical activity they do and how much vitamin D and calcium they are getting.

You and your grandchildren can harness the bone-building powers of hopping and jumping simply by playing together. Drag them away from their TV and phone screens, and go outside for some games like hopscotch, jump rope and leap frog. Your bones (and theirs) will thank you.

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