Mind & Body

High-Impact Exercise Is Actually Good for Your Bones

From yoga and pilates to aerobics and boot-camp classes, the exercise industry loves to tout the "low-impact" nature of workout routines. But while low-impact exercise certainly has its place, you might be doing yourself a disservice by avoiding high-impact activities. It might seem counterintuitive, but high-impact exercise helps build stronger bones. Here's how.

Nothing But a G Thing

Everyone knows that you need to stress your muscles to make them get stronger. What you might not know is that the same is true of your bones. After all, your skeleton is as much a living part of your body as your muscles are, and it changes and adapts in response to everything you do. That's obvious when you break a bone and it heals over time; it's less obvious when an athletic kid grows up to be a senior with strong bones.

A perfect illustration of how impact is linked to sturdy bones comes from a study published in 2012 by researchers at the University of Bristol and Manchester Metropolitan University. The team combed through data in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which tracked the health of 14,500 families over two decades. Importantly, portions of that study had participants go about their everyday activities while wearing an activity tracker with an accelerometer, which analyzes g forces (a measure of impact).

The team honed in on accelerometer and bone mass data from more than 700 teenagers in the study and found that those who experienced impacts of 4.2 g or greater had significantly stronger hip bones. That's comparable to the force you'd feel around a tight turn on a rollercoaster. To achieve that kind of force, you'd need to jump onto and down from a box at least 15 inches (38 centimeters) high or run at a pace of 10 minutes per mile (about 6 minutes per kilometer) or faster. Even though the teens rarely experienced those impacts, just the fact that they experienced them at all appeared to be enough to strengthen their bones.

We also have direct evidence from athletes who withstand most of their impact with only one limb: tennis players. When researchers from the UK and Germany performed bone-density scans on the right and left arms of 50 youth tennis players, they found that the bones of each athlete's racket arm was around 20 percent wider and contained 40 percent more bone mineral than their other arm. You can also compare the bones of athletes whose sports require high and low levels of impact: a study of 255 young women found that while those who did high-impact sports like volleyball, hurdling, and soccer had a bone mineral density up to 29 percent higher than their nonathletic counterparts, those who did low-impact sports like cycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing had about the same bone density as people who didn't exercise.

Bones, You Have the Bridge

In case it's not obvious, there are good reasons to strengthen your bones. Your body is constantly getting rid of old bone to make room for new bone, and until you hit age 30, your skeleton is in the black: it creates more bone than it breaks down. After that, you start to lose a bit more bone mass than you gain. The more bone mass you have when you celebrate the big 3-0, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis in the decades to follow. Osteoporosis causes weak bones that fracture easily and put people at greater risk of disability, loss of independence, and premature death.

If you're already over 30 (welcome to the club), all is not lost. A 2015 study that asked women between the ages of 25 and 50 to do a simple high-impact exercise twice a day (10 jumps with 30 seconds of rest between each jump) significantly increased the mineral density of their hip bones after four months. Those who jumped 20 times twice a day showed even greater gains. Even better, a study of 80 postmenopausal women (average age of 58) with mild knee osteoarthritis — the types of people you'd assume shouldn't be doing any high-impact exercise — boosted the quality of their knee cartilage after a year of doing high-impact exercise three times a week. That said, if you do have a bone or joint condition, ask your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

The science is clear: if you want healthy bones, go for a sprint, jump some rope, or grab a tennis racket. Lifting weights is also a great way to stay fracture-free into old age. Low-impact exercise will keep your body conditioned and limbs supple, but high-impact exercise will keep your bones strong, long into the future.

To learn all the different ways running and other high-impact exercise benefits you, check out "The Runner's Body: How the Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer, and Faster" by Ross Tucker, Jonathan, Dugas, and Matt Fitzgerald. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Ashley Hamer May 31, 2018

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