Run to Improve Bone Health and Prevent Osteoporosis

man tying his shoe before a run
November 29, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Bones are not the rigid “pillars” they appear to be. Bones are actually a type of tissue, ossified tissue in fact. And like all tissues in your body, bones are constantly regenerating – shedding old cells and replacing them with new ones. I say that because many of my peers in the medical field treat weak bones as if they are made of sandstone. It’s common to hear that high-impact exercises are dangerous if you have weak bones, but I’m telling you here and now: Running will actually strengthen your bones!

One might think that running would be counterproductive to bone health. After all, if your bones already feel achy and weak, wouldn’t the constant pounding on the pavement only weaken, even damage, them more? From a pain perspective, I understand where that line of thinking comes from. I have often recommended to patients and readers to be cautious about certain high-impact exercises depending on their specific medical concerns.

But bone health is not one of them. Bones don’t weaken when stress is applied to them. Bones weaken when little to no stress is applied to them over the course of years.

Remember that feeling of invincibility you had in your teens and 20s? That wasn’t just a naïve, carefree attitude. Back then, your tissues were growing and regenerating at a much faster pace. Tissues were growing and regenerating naturally, but also because your activity and exercising strengthened those tissues and helped speed up the process of growth and regeneration. Exercises that stress our bones produce osteoblasts, which are bone-building cells. As we do more osteoblast-producing exercises, our bones get bigger and stronger.

But in our 30s and 40s, our tissues stop growing on their own without regular exercise. Also, the rate at which they regenerate slows too. Around then or soon after, the rate at which our bones shed cells exceeds the rate of regrowth. For women especially, hormone levels (especially estrogen) begin to drop so slowly in the 10 to 15 years before menopause that the feeling often goes unnoticed.

During that time, careers, kids and family events can take up so much time and thought that A) we tend to exercise less, and B) we don’t notice the weakening of our bones. Our tissues still regenerate naturally, but as we age, the rate of regeneration also continues slowing. While men don’t experience menopause like women do, it’s around that same age that their bones weaken as well.

Bones losing their cells isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Osteoclasts are cells that break down your bone tissues, which is essential for repair and maintenance. But having too many osteoclasts and too few bone-building osteoblasts will eventually shrink and weaken your bones. So if you want strong, healthy bones at any age, you need to produce more bone-building osteoblasts to counter the abundance of naturally occurring osteoclasts.

Running Benefits Your Body and Bones

Think of bone tissue growth the same way as muscle tissue growth. Exercise makes your muscles stronger and denser. The higher-intensity exercise (i.e. lifting weights), the stronger and denser your muscles become.

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Now, here is where there is a big distinction between bone tissue and muscle tissue. Bone mass is built by applying stress to the full length of the bone, especially when working against gravity. I believe that your hip and leg bones are the most vital because they bear most of your body’s weight. They need to be strong. For one, running is an exercise that works against gravity. It also works the entire length of your leg bones – from hips to toes and those meaty bones in between.

Over time, running builds and strengthens the cells in your bones. It doesn’t slow down the body’s shedding of bone cells (which occurs naturally) but it does increase the rate at which cells are regenerated.

Tips to Start Running

If it’s been a while since you’ve gone for a run (or the thought of running has never even crossed your mind), I don’t suggest you lace up and run a 5k. First, talk with your doctor about your health and where exercise fits into the equation of improving it.

For many people, a running routine starts with 15-20 minute walks around the block. Gradually build your walking time and the pace of your stride from a walk to a trot to a jog to a run.

That said, if you have the green light to run, here are some tips to consider before the rubber of your soles hits the road.

  • Having the right shoes is very important. They should be comfortable and tight, but not too tight. Running shoes should be replaced after 300-500 miles. To make them last longer, use your running shoes only for running.
  • Getting the mechanics right is crucial to maximizing the health benefits of an exercise. It also ensures that an exercise does not cause an injury. Too many people up and start running, but forego learning the proper mechanics. They often end up with pain in all kinds of places – knees, feet and back especially. When you begin running, don’t focus on your duration or distance but on getting the form right until you are doing it without thinking about it. I suggest working with a trainer if you’re brand new to running. Otherwise there are plenty of online resources and youtube videos you can search through.
  • Here’s another running tip that a lot of runners don’t even know: Having a strong core and lower back will help you run longer and with better mechanics. Your core and lower back muscles help hold your body upright, allowing you to run with good posture and balance. That means less weight bearing down on your feet with each stride.
  • Don’t run daily. As you age, your body needs more time to recover from high-intensity exercises. Stay active by all means – walking, swimming, dancing, biking – but running every day isn’t recommended even for those invincible 20-somethings. Start with once a week. Gradually build to 2-3 times a week.
  • If it’s been years since you last ran, start by walking. Gradually increase speed, distance and duration. You can only walk so fast until you reach the point where you’ll have to start jogging to go faster. That’s when you know you are ready.
  • Look for running/walking trails. Many are covered with crushed limestone or soft gravel, which will reduce the impact and make for a more comfortable run.

Running is a great way to regain that youthful feeling of your 20s and 30s. Sometimes the biggest barrier to running is the false sense that it will do more damage than good. That’s not true, but like all intense exercises, running is something that should be built up to and gradually incorporated into your health routine.

Let me put it this way. Sitting will make your bones weaker, not running.

References

Welker, Carolee. “Why Running is So Beneficial for Older Women.” Washington Post. Published August 1, 2017.

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