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Yoga and bone health? It's not what you think

Updated: Jan 19

The bones of the chest
Can yoga aid bone health?

Since turning 60, I have consistently adjusted my yoga practice to meet my changing osteoporotic requirements. I now use props far more frequently and they have added another dimension to my practice. One that I enjoy. I like to experience standing forward bends using a chair with my lower arms resting on the seat. For me, this is a very comfortable variation. I also use yoga blocks to sit on and to support my standing forward bends as another variation from a chair. I love the extra padding that a folded blanket gives to my knees when I am standing on them. I like to use a wall when I am doing half-moon pose and sometimes, I incorporate a chair as well.

I have learned that to help my osteoporosis, consistency is key, to practice a few minutes every day. I have also learned to ‘dial it back’. To practice well within my range of motion and, sometimes, to use only 5% of muscular contraction. This allows the movements of yoga to feel like a whisper through the body. I always have the option to hold a pose for a few more breaths should I wish to push myself that day. I have found the teachings of the Canadian Physical Therapist, Margaret Martin, very helpful.(6)

Consistent practice is one thing, does this improve the density and strength of bones. A report found that a gentle yoga intervention may be beneficial for improving bone and mental health in adolescent females with anorexia nervosa. (1) The study found that bone mineral density (BMD) was significantly improved as well as depression in the young women. This was for just 6 months and twice weekly gentle yoga classes.

A little bit of theory: our bones are living tissue consisting of lots of different cells, protein, blood vessels and minerals. They store calcium and make red blood cells. Calcium is an important part of muscle contraction, the bones then store up the calcium when it is no longer needed. Red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow at an amazing 2 million a second! So, our bones are pretty busy supporting our bodies. (3)

A definition: “Osteoporosis is a systemic skeletal condition characterized by low bone mass and microarchitectural deterioration of bone tissue that increases bone fragility and risk for fractures (US Department of Health and Human Services 2004)”. Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens the bones of the body. It makes them more fragile and therefore, more likely to fracture. This is due to low bone mass and deterioration of the bone structure.

Why should we look after our bones?

The International Osteoporosis Foundation (4) points out that the number of people over 65 is steadily increasing. Hand in hand is the fact that the number of people with chronic health problems is increasing. We can all do a little to help ourselves and help the overall healthcare situation. One very useful thing we can do is to reduce our likelihood of falling.

The report goes on to say that “exercise was associated with a 21% reduction in rate of falls in community-dwelling older people. Exercise programmes that challenged balance and involved more than three hours per week of exercise achieved the greatest benefits”. Another study by the Cochrane database (5) supported this evidence.

We are advised, therefore, to do some kind of exercise that challenges balance. We are also advised to lift weights because of Wolffs Law from 1892. Wolff found that bones become stronger and denser the more resistance they experience. We also need a mix of hormones, calcium and vitamins such as Vitamin D to build the light yet strong mesh of the bone structure. When muscles contract they help enable our bones to adapt.

Although not statistically significant, a report by Tosca Park stated that using “breath regulation, chanting, and visualization’ was seen to improve the wound healing of fractures”. Interestingly, this study did not include poses (or asana), but simply breath work with chanting and visualisation. This study is a good reminder of the diversity of yoga and how nonphysical practices can strongly affect the physical body.

Would it seem that the research is saying that a regular, gentle yoga practice is meeting the requirements of good bone structure? Yoga is a mix of movement, breath work, chanting and meditation. A beautiful package for delivering stronger bones. What do you think?

If you want to try this form of movement to help support the structure of you bones consider these options before heading to a yoga teacher for a class (from Demystifying Osteoporosis):

• Have you consulted your healthcare professional before trying yoga?

• Are you working with a physiotherapist?

• How active are you currently?

• Which areas of your body are affected?

• How severe is your condition?

• Have you sustained a fracture before?

• Are you on medication?

Dr Yogi’s tips for stepping into a yoga class:

• Be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself – it is brilliant that you are stepping up and trying something new – take it easy

• Do note that fractures are rarely caused by exercise

• The benefits of being active outweigh the risks

• Start slow and steady, gradually progress poses

• Consult the Royal Osteoporosis Society Website (8) for details of exercise levels for ranges of osteoporosis

In conclusion, there are some small studies that support bone strengthening through yoga but mostly this is not an area that has received much attention. Yoga could be seen to be a productive support mechanism for other kinds of exercise, lifting weights being an example and regular walking. Yoga can be seen, however, to be very useful to help our overall physical and mental wellbeing.(9) It will help us achieve consistent movement, to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness and allow us to relax fully to enable the body to nourish itself.

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