By Dan Taylor
As a fitness trainer, I'm often witness to spontaneous discussions on exercise and nutrition-related topics. They can spring up anywhere—the park, school, parties, even the local coffee shop.
Usually I don't chime in unless asked, because I find it fascinating to observe these conversations without my interference, mainly to see what the common wisdom is out there among everyday folks. But this one was just too good to stay out of, especially since it presented itself on my Facebook wall. A clear invitation, don't you think?
This Facebook thread was started by a lovely woman I met at a meditation class series that was held at Downtown Yoga in Pleasanton. My main point was to clarify the relative benefits of weight-bearing activities as a substitute for, or adjunct to, the more popular practice of taking calcium supplements as a preventive or therapeutic measure to preserve bone density and health.
Bottom line? Strength training and eating calcium-rich foods is usually better than taking pills.
Here's the thread:
Natascha: Anybody know really good calcium pills? Doctor says my calcium is low, even though I chuck down those Trader Joe's pills daily.
Greg: Milk, eat lots of dark leafy greens like spinach, also broccoli and cauliflower?
Jim: Eat broccoli — raw
Julia: I drink skim milk with every meal, about a gallon a week. It reduces your appetite and is very healthy. I don't think pills work but my mom eats those chewable ones that are caramel from drug store. Btw, this is really serious. Your chances of being one of those bent-over old ladies increases every year that you are not downing the calcium.
Nancy: I take Citracal Max, which has a good load of Vitamin D to help absorb. Exercise daily and eat tons of green stuff, eat cereals with fat-free milk and lots of ice cream. How did your doctor determine that you were deficient? I had to collect my urine for 24 hours...twice!
Dan: Natascha, do you strength train? Weight-bearing exercise is the most effective therapeutic preventive measure you can take. It actually increases bone density. Asian and Caucasian women are at the highest risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis, but strength training can significantly diminish your risk. Let me know if you'd like more info/guidance. Proper execution is critical to safety and effectiveness.
Natascha: Well, I do yoga but that might not cut it. Where to find the time?
Dan: Yoga's not enough. You need vertical load bearing (free weights in your hands loading your spine) and lateral stress (push-ups/chest press, rows or lat pulls) on your hips and spine to slow and/or reverse bone-density loss. I have a client near 70 who has increased her bone density at both sites over the past several years with mostly free weight and body weight resistance work. Calcium supplements are inferior to dietary sources in terms of absorption. And you can build and maintain increased strength adequate to strengthen your bones and joints with just 15-20 minutes a couple of times a week.
Heather: I totally agree with Dan re: weight-bearing exercise. Question to Dan: We yogis spend a lot of time on our heads and/or hands. Aside from weight-training (which I've done for years), does that offer the kind of load to the spine that you are referring to? Or is it going in the wrong direction? There is far more body weight resistance work in yoga than most people realize. It's not all lying around and stretching. A tremendous amount of strength is needed for many of the postures.
Dan Taylor: Heather, yoga practitioners who can bear weight on their hands for extended periods absolutely do increase bone density on the weight-bearing chain (hands, wrists, shoulders, and, to some degree, spine). On your head it would be neck and, depending on the angle, spine as well. But that takes a certain level of skill and strength to body-weight ratio that's not common among most casual exercisers. The advantage of resistance training with external loads, besides the fact that virtually anyone can do it, is that you are going through a constant, repetitive flexion and extension loop. This loop progressively fatigues the targeted muscles, gradually shifting more and more load to the bones and joints (like holding a plank until you're about to collapse). Strength training is designed to overload the muscles, so the joint/bone weight-bearing is significant, body-part specific, and, if the program is designed properly, balanced throughout the body.
Note: Interested in learning more about weight-bearing exercise and bone health? Check out this article from the official journal for the American College of Sports Medicine, the premier authority on exercise science and its health benefits.
Dan Taylor is a 20-year resident of Pleasanton and a nationally certified fitness trainer and educator. Dan can be reached at TriValleyWellness.com.