In my last article I talked about Wolff’s Law, which explains how the pressure exerted on a bone stimulates the bone to grow, so it can resist that force in the future.
There are 2 ways to stimulate bone growth. One is using the force of gravity (compressive stress), and the other is the way muscles pull on the bones when they are in various positions (tensile stress). Yoga puts the body in a variety of positions that are not on the gravity line, or plumb line. This means the muscles have to work harder. It’s like the difference between holding a 2 pound weight close to your body versus holding it out with a straight arm at shoulder height. The second way is much harder due to the relationship to gravity.
(In Balance/Spinefulness we make use of this principle to find the maximum position of verticality, to take stress off the muscles, joints, and discs, and increase relaxation. However, when you want to build bone, you have to create some tensile stress, though still with healthy alignment).
You can increase the benefit to your bones in yoga through actively engaging your muscles. The muscles actually stimulate the bone growth as they contract and put pressure on the bones. This can be done in various ways – dynamically, by coming in and out of poses, and statically, by holding poses for a length of time. Dr. Loren Fishman’s research showed that poses needed to be held for 12 seconds in order to show benefit for bone growth (not very long!). The maximum benefit was reached at 72 seconds, which again, isn’t that long for some poses. You can hold the poses longer for other types of benefits, such as increasing muscle strength or flexibility, but the bone stimulation maxes out at 72 seconds.
Dr. Fishman is conducting another larger study, and if you’d like to be a part of it, you can find out more information at www.sciatica.org. You can be in the study whether you have osteoporosis, osteopenia, or just want to prevent those conditions. In this study, he hopes to show how the amount of yoga done can make a difference in the strengthening of bones.
The Effect of Nutrition
To have strong bones, you need sufficient minerals – mainly calcium and magnesium. You also need to avoid things that deplete your body of minerals, such as tobacco, caffeine, more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day, excess protein consumption (lots of red meat or dairy), and soda. Vitamin D is essential also, and ideally some daily time in the sunshine to allow your body to make more vitamin D. In the winter or in colder climates, supplementing with vitamin D is very important. More information about nutrition for healthy bones can be found in Yoga for Osteoporosis by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall.*
I think Dr. Fishman’s research is very hopeful. Yoga can help improve bone strength without the side effects of osteoporosis medications. Yoga’s “side effects” include increased muscle strength and flexibility, improved posture and coordination, decreased anxiety and stress. And if you add the postural alignments of Balance/Spinefulness, you have even more benefits, such as reduced back and joint pain and more comfort during all your daily activities.
When I heard that the main cause of vertebral fractures was poor posture, I was very excited, because posture is something we have control over. If osteoporosis causes the fractures, we don’t have much control. But if posture causes the fractures, we can make significant changes and improvements to our posture that could help us avoid these painful fractures.
- Fishman, MD, Loren and Ellen Saltonstall. Yoga for Osteoporosis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).
© Dana K. Davis, 2017. All Rights Reserved.