Years ago when training for my first half marathon, I received the best and most unexpected running buddy… my mom. At 60 years old, my inspiring mom took up running and completed the half marathon, leaving many of the 20-somethings in her dust. In addition to the satisfaction of hitting such a big goal, my mom and I also strengthened our bones in the process.
“The benefits of running apply primarily to weight-bearing bones. By exercising these bones, your bone density increases,” says Dr. William P. Kelley, Clinic Director at USA Sports Therapy in Miami, FL. “But, too much pressure on these bones can do as much damage as not exercising them at all. For runners, 12-19 miles a week is the sweet spot for increasing bone health.”
Running 12-19 miles per week is feasible when you’re training for a distance race, but what if you simply want to improve your bone health by becoming more active? Fortunately just seconds per day of running can give you and your bones huge benefits.
How Does Running Strengthen Bones?
We often hear about the bone benefits of strength-training exercises, such as lifting free weights, but running also stresses our bones in a good way. “Running is great for bone health, because it’s an impact activity that stresses the bones of the lower extremity with specific benefit from the stresses along the trabecular lines of the femur. Bones follow the principle of Wolff’s Law, which states that they will adapt to the stresses placed on them,” explains Kelley.
“So, a bone that’s under pressure will grow stronger while a bone that’s rarely stressed will grow weaker. The increased demand for bone growing nutrient release [osteoblastic mediators] into the blood also creates a systemic response to help with improved bone density in the axial skeleton and upper extremity as well.”
How Much Should I Run to Strengthen My Bones?
So now that we know how helpful running can be for our bones, exactly how much running do we need to do? You don’t need to block off your entire Saturday morning for a long run in order to score these benefits. Do you have an extra 1-2 minutes per day? Good, because that’s all it takes.
A study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that both pre- and postmenopausal women benefitted from just 1-2 minutes of running per day. The women in the study who participated in 1-2 minutes of high-impact, weight-bearing activities had 4% better bone health than women who worked-out for less than 1 minute. Women who exercised longer than 2 minutes showed 6% better bone health.
Can Running Treat Osteoporosis?
Because running for just a minute per day can have such an effect on bone density, it seems like the perfect treatment for osteoporosis. However, once you’ve been diagnosed with low bone density, running may not be the best move. “If you already have osteoporosis, avoid running and try lower impact exercises to keep your strength up,” recommends Kelley. “Older individuals who don’t participate in high-impact exercise regularly may be at risk of injury should they decide to take up running all of a sudden. As always, consult your physician before beginning any new exercise regimen.”
If you’re ready to start incorporating running into your daily routine, it can be tough to know where to start. Tim Petrie, a Physical Therapist at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, WI, recommends working your way up to 30 minutes of activity 4-5 times per week, but start where you are comfortable. “Aim for a workout that increases your heart rate, makes you feel flushed, but still allows you to hold a conversation,” he says. Petrie also recommends incorporating a mix of weight-bearing exercise like running with strength training.
Pain Does Not Equal Gain
While it’s great to challenge yourself with a new goal, it’s imperative to do it in a safe way. When you start any new physical activity, a little discomfort is to be expected, but steer clear of any exercise that causes pain. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, feeling sore a day or two after your workout is normal. However, any pain during or after your workout is a sign that you need to stop. If you’ve been feeling sharp pain during a workout, talk with your physician.
Incorporate Resistance Training into your Routine
Once you’ve started incorporating short bursts of running into your day, it’s time to put a strength plan in place as well. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends incorporating a mix of both weight-bearing exercises like running with muscle-strengthening exercises like weightlifting or yoga. Yoga can be especially helpful for both preventing and treating osteoporosis.
“Yoga helps grow bone mass, but because yoga poses pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga also may stimulate the formation of a bone structure that’s able to resist greater amounts of pressure, as well as many different types of challenges,” Dr. Loren Fishman, author of Yoga for Osteoporosis: The Complete Guide told Yoga U.
“There are numerous other important ways in which yoga benefits people with osteoporosis, such as improving balance, muscular strength, range of motion and coordination, while lessening anxiety. These are other important benefits of yoga for people with osteoporosis because they each help reduce the risk of falling.”
The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends incorporating a strength-training program about three times per week. Look into local yoga classes to complement your running routine.