No matter your age, you can build stronger bones.
Strong bones are especially important in later years, when falls are likely to lead to fractures. About half of all women over age 50 break a bone because of osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. That's pretty grim. And men aren't off the hook—the bone-thinning disease affects them too, though at a lower rate.
An antidote to frailty can be found in Wolff’s Law, which says (in not-so-simple terms): The architectonic (structural underpinning) of bone follow the lines of force to which that bone is subjected.
“In other words, stressing bone causes buildup of bone ... right where the stress is strongest," says Dr. Loren Fishman, MD, the medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City and co-author of eight wellness books, including Yoga for Osteoporosis. “It’s a well-known and very well-documented principle.”
Fishman earned headlines when a 2015 study he co-authored showed that practicing 12 yoga poses—which stress bones—for just 12 minutes a day improved bone density for 80 percent of participants, whose average age was about 69 and who almost all had either osteoporosis or osteopenia, its precursor. Bone density increased mainly in their spines and femurs.
“We are not sure exactly which of the 12 poses in our 12-minute series are the most effective for each set of bones,” Fishman says. But what makes yoga poses, in general, so good at bone-building is the dynamic tension they create between opposing muscles or groups of muscles, Fishman notes. (There are a few exceptions: Flexing your spine—rounding it like a cat—is widely regarded as bad if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia.)
Try these two relatively mild and accessible moves to start. Hold them for 12 to 72 seconds, the ideal duration for stimulating bone-making cells, Fishman says. If you want to see more postures check out the whole sequence.
Bone health requires more than dynamic tension though. You've also got to eat well (vitamin D and calcium matter, along with a dozen other nutrients). The Mediterranean diet provides a terrific blueprint. Good habits, like not smoking, help too.
Main target area: hips
Lie on your back with your knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling, your feet hip-distance apart. Place your ankles under your knees. Lay your arms alongside your torso. Inhale as you lift your hips and chest. As you exhale, press down through your feet and arms, but keep your hips and chest aloft. Continue with smooth, steady breaths. If you are able, interlace your fingers underneath you. With straight arms, press the pinky side of your hands down and roll to your outer shoulders.
Reclined Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose I
Main target area: thigh bones
Lie on your back with your knees bent and pointing toward the ceiling, your feet hip-distance apart. Press down through your hips and engage your core. Hold the end of a strap (or tie or soft belt) in either hand. As you inhale raise your right leg then hook the strap under the ball of your right foot. Gradually straighten your leg as much as you comfortably can, firming its muscles. If you're able to get your right leg straight and perpendicular to the floor with both hips down, you can straighten your left leg and press through its heel (if you can't maintain your lumbar curve, bend your left leg and bring the left foot back down). Push your right leg away from your body as you gently pull the strap with your arms. Switch legs.
Mitra Malek, a former Yoga Journal editor, has taught yoga regularly since 2006. Connect with her at mitramalek.com.