Athletic therapist Alan Luhowy sees clients from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at least five days a week at his clinic in Brandon, Manitoba. Among those weekend warriors, elite athletes and people recovering from surgery or injury, one woman stands out.
This 75-year-old client makes it to his clinic three days a week, works hard for an hour lifting weights, stretching, and developing her balance. She’s been doing that for 14 years and she has osteoporosis. “She’s my star,” says Luhowy, owner of Champion Athletic Therapy.
When this grandmother isn’t at the clinic, she walks to build up her endurance and strength. Her osteoporosis diagnosis means she gets a bone density test every two years and the latest one proves her efforts are paying off.
Her bone mass has held steady and she is now in the normal range; as a result, she no longer takes medication for the disease. “She can garden for hours without pain now, and she plays the piano,” says Luhowy. “Being able to enjoy those activities of daily living, that’s the best thing.”
The trick for this woman – and everyone with osteoporosis – is slowing the progression of bone loss and building up bone mass. Exercise is key to both.
What is osteoporosis?
Men and women hit peak bone mass between our mid-teens and mid-twenties and start to lose that mass in their early 30s. In people with osteoporosis, a progressive disease defined by low bone density and deteriorating bone mass, the bones become so porous and weak they’re susceptible to fractures, often in the hip, spine, wrist and shoulder. Two million Canadians are affected by osteoporosis and every one in three women will develop an osteoporotic fracture in her lifetime.
There’s no single cause of the disease, but certain groups are predisposed, specifically women over 50, those whose parents had a hip fracture, and people who experienced weight loss of more than 10% since age 25.
Some doctors prescribe medication to slow bone loss and reduce the risk of fractures, but often osteoporosis patients also get a prescription for exercise.
Before you start working out
Get the all-clear from your doctor before starting any exercise plan and then get professional guidance.
An athletic therapist will do an assessment based on your medical history and look for muscle imbalances, tightness and weakness, and then design a program specifically to target those issues.
Generally, people with osteoporosis should avoid high impact workouts, such as jumping and running – weakened bones can fracture under pressure. And watch out for bending and twisting, such as in certain yoga poses or golf. For people with osteoporosis, those movements can cause compression fractures in the spine.
What exercises are best to combat osteoporosis?
Building strength through resistance training, increasing flexibility and improving balance are priorities. That can be done with dumbbells and, if the client is strong enough, loading the spine by carrying a backpack with weights during walks or treadmill sessions. The Mayo Clinic produced a series of short videos showing how to exercise your upper back safely with common gym equipment.
Core work is important, but you’ve got to think beyond that. “Twenty years ago, we talked about core strength, now we call it pillar strength,” says Luhowy.
That means not only your abdominals and obliques, but the muscles in the lower and upper back, including the back of your neck. Your pillar also includes your glutes
“Glutes should be the strongest muscles of your body, and your legs are your shock absorbers – they protect your lower back,” says Luhowy. You can use your own body weight, through lunges for example, to build both glute and leg muscles.
Discomfort with exercise is to be expected, so it is important to understand your pain. “If it feels like a sharp pain, such as someone sticking a knife in you, that’s a bad pain and you should stop,” says Luhowy, “but if your muscle is burning, you should continue to work through that; that’s where you get your strength from.”
Starting an exercise regimen can be daunting, especially for those new to working out, but according to Luhowy, while people with osteoporosis have to be careful, “they also have to challenge themselves.” If you stick with a plan, and make exercise a regular part of your life, he adds, “you will improve over time.”
Alan Luhowy of Champion Athletic Therapy combines both the practice of Athletic Therapy and Personal Training to serve a diverse clientele. He works with both athletes and the general public to relieve and recover from acute or chronic injuries, as well as in rehabilitation pre or post-surgery.