I know a lot of people that have broken bones in the last few years. Most of them are women; some are friends and some are yoga students. Most of them are over 50. While we may worry about losing height due to osteoporosis, breaking a bone is much more serious, since it can require surgery and lead to other complications. Is there a way that we can reduce our chances of osteoporotic fractures?
In the US there are about 55 million people with osteoporosis. About twice as many women as men have osteoporosis. The most commonly fractured bones are the spine, hip, and wrist, respectively. Hip fractures can be very serious, as 25% of people that fracture a hip never recover, and end up dying within a year or two.
Mainstream medicine recommends drugs (Fosamax, for example) to treat or prevent osteoporosis, but these drugs have many side effects, such as digestive problems, heart abnormalities, osteonecrosis (death) of some bones, spontaneous fractures, slower healing, and others. So, if you don’t want to take drugs with those kinds of side effects, what are your other options?
Good Stress & Bad Stress
Weight-bearing exercise has been recommended to build bone. Wolff’s Law explains how when a bone is stressed in a certain direction, it builds itself up to resist that strain in the future. Running or high-impact aerobics may build bone, but they can be hard on older joints, especially with arthritis. Yoga is showing promising results in recent research by Dr. Loren Fishman of New York. Yoga has the benefit of stressing bones in the right way without stressing the joints in a way that would aggravate arthritis.
In Dr. Fishman’s pilot study (published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, July/September, 2009), he took 18 men and women with an average age of 68. They had bone mineral density tests before and after the study. They did 10 minutes of yoga per day, and the control group didn’t do yoga. After 2 years, they found that the group that did yoga gained bone mineral density, while the control group lost some. The results were statistically significant.
Another study is underway with more than 400 people, some with osteoporosis, some with osteopenia, and some with neither diagnosis. They’ve done a total of more than 48,000 hours of yoga, and have had no fractures or serious injuries so far.
The main 2 ways to fracture a bone if you have osteoporosis are to fall, or to have a vertebral fracture due to hyper-kyphosis of the thoracic spine. In plain English, that means that if your upper back is really curvy, you are putting more weight on the front edges of the vertebrae, and that weight can lead to a vertebral fracture. Once you’ve had one of these, you’re more likely to have another, because your posture becomes even more rounded. So improving posture is the way to reduce that cause of fracture.
The main way to avoid fractures due to falls is Improving your balancing skills, so you can catch yourself before you fall.
Of course, there are no guarantees in this area. We’ll probably all experience some falls in our future. My last fall was luckily a gentle one. I got tangled up in some bird netting and fell into a pile of mulch! I was very grateful that I had such a soft landing. But sometimes it happens when we are on the street, and the surface is unforgiving.
Yoga has been shown to improve balancing skills, since many yoga poses include challenging positions in relation to gravity. As you practice these poses, your skill will increase, especially if you challenge yourself by working on your edge (safely, of course). Yoga can also increase muscle strength, which gives us more ability to recover when we lose our balance. This would not apply to some styles of yoga, such as Restorative Yoga. (I love restorative poses, but they have other types of benefits than muscle strengthening.)
Yoga can also help prevent falls by increasing awareness of the feet. When you’re aware of your feet, you can sense the ground under you more clearly, noticing pitfalls sooner so you can avoid them.
I’ve also found that changing my posture through my practice of Balance/Spinefulness has made a big difference in my balancing skills. I stand and walk differently than I did when I was younger, and on numerous times I’ve tripped over speed bumps, curbs and stairs, but I haven’t fallen. I attribute that to my posture mainly, and combined with yoga it definitely makes me safer.
Yoga does improve your posture, and combined with Balance/Spinefulness, it is much more powerful. I still find that a lot of yoga is taught with some of the older postural guidelines – similar to how a lot of Americans “try” to have “good posture”. This is not the healthy posture of traditional cultures that Noelle Perez-Christiaens of Paris discovered. Tucking the pelvis and lifting the chest unfortunately are temporary solutions that cannot be maintained for long periods due to the muscle tension involved, and they take the spine out of its natural alignment.
(You can refer to my previous article on my blog from September, 2012 for more tips on preventing falls: https://sonomabodybalance.com/2012/09/how-to-prevent-falls/)
Stay tuned for my next article, where I’ll discuss HOW exactly yoga can help us build strong bones.
© Dana K. Davis, 2017. All Rights Reserved.