By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.” – Loren Fishman
Bone is living tissue that, like all living tissues, is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone. This results in a loss of bone mass, causing bones to become weak and brittle. It can become so brittle that a fall or even mild stresses like bending over or coughing can cause a fracture. These fractures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine. Osteoporosis, particularly in its early stages, is difficult to diagnosis as there are typically no symptoms of bone loss. But once bones have been weakened, signs and symptoms may include: back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra, loss of height over time, a stooped posture, or a bone fracture that occurs much more easily than expected.
Osteoporosis is estimated to affect 200 million women worldwide; approximately 10% of women aged 60, 20% of women aged 70, 40% of women aged 80 and 70% of women aged 90. In the United States 54 million adults over 50 are affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass; 16% of women and 4% of men. Worldwide, osteoporosis causes more than 8.9 million fractures annually, including 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over age 50. Most fractures occur in postmenopausal women and elderly men. Osteoporosis takes a huge personal and economic toll. The disability due to osteoporosis is greater than that caused by cancers and is comparable or greater than that lost to a variety of chronic diseases, such as arthritis, asthma and high blood pressure related heart disease.
The most common treatments for osteoporosis are drugs which slow down the breakdown of bone, combined with exercise. The side effects of the drugs are mild, including upset stomach and heartburn. But, there is a major compliance problem as the drugs must be taken over very long periods of time. In fact, only about a third of patients continue to take their medications for at least a year. Even when drugs are taken, exercise is recommended to improve bone growth.
In today’s Research News article “Effects of Yogasanas on osteoporosis in postmenopausal women”
Motorwala and colleagues studied the effects of yoga practice on bone density of postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. The women were treated with a 1-hour yoga practice, 4-days per week for 6-months, including postures and breathing exercises. Bone density was measured before and again after treatment with dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). They found that yoga practice resulted in a significant improvement in bone density. Without treatment, bone density generally becomes worse over this period of time. So, it would appear that yoga practice improves bone density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.
This is an important outcome, but it probably understates the benefits of yoga practice for these postmenopausal women. It has been shown that yoga practice produces a number of physical and psychological benefits that were not measured in the present study. In addition, yoga is a generally safe treatment with few adverse consequences. Hence, various weight bearing as well as nonweight bearing yoga postures along with breathing exercises are effective in improving bone density and integrated yoga exercises should be an important component of any osteoporosis treatment exercise regime.
So, fight osteoporosis with yoga.
“We often consider the frailty and disability associated with osteoporosis and osteopenia (bone loss that is not as severe as osteoporosis) as a normal part of aging. Medical research shows, however, that it’s not aging, but inactivity that causes bones to weaken and easily break. Although medications may be necessary to treat severe osteoporotic conditions, the best preventative strategy is to engage in bone-strengthening exercise, like yoga” – Gary Kaplan
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies