Yoga for Stronger Bones

Yoga practiced on a regular basis could help strengthen your bones! Certain poses including Warrior II, Triangle, and Tree are considered weight-bearing exercise, often recommended along with a healthy diet for optimal bone health.

“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.”

-Dr. Loren Fishman, author of study “Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss

Recently, I’ve had several students approach me after yoga class to talk about their bones. “I just got the results from my most recent DEXA scan, and there’s been an improvement in my bone mineral density score in my spine!” says one 73-year old student who started practicing yoga consistently about two years ago in my classes. Another student, who just turned 70, reported a similar result on her latest scan. Both were kind enough to share their results with me, pictured below.

The DEXA or DXA scan is today’s established standard for measuring bone mineral density, and helps to estimate the density of your bones and your chance of breaking a bone. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, “a bone density test is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs.” If you’ve got osteopenia or osteoporosis, it’s reflected in the numbers.

In fact, more than 200 million people suffer from osteoporosis. Worldwide, 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 and 1 in 5 men will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime.

We reach peak bone density by our late twenties, and then it’s maintained by a continuous process called remodeling, in which old bone is removed and new bone is created. The renewal of bone is responsible for bone strength throughout life. Certain factors like age, genetics, lack of exercise and poor diet can slow down bone renewal, and then our bones might thin to such a degree that we develop osteopenia or osteoporosis. Happily, there are lifestyle changes you can make to maintain and build bone density.

Bridge Pose (Setu bandhasana) stretches the spine

Of course we’d love to attribute the slight improvement in our yoga students’ bone mineral density scores to the practice of yoga. The only real change they’ve made has been adding a regular yoga practice, and neither of them are on medication. So just how effective is a regular yoga practice for building stronger bones?

According to one study, “there is qualitative evidence suggesting improved bone quality as a result of the practice of yoga.”

The study is pretty much the only one of its kind, and its revelations are being touted in Harvard Health and The New York Times. Researchers prescribed 12 yoga postures held for 30 seconds each, practiced on a daily basis by 221 participants. They measured bone density at the beginning and end of the study, and concluded that yoga “actually builds bone significantly in the spine and the femur, the two most frequent sites of fracture.” You can find out more on Dr. Fishman’s site, Sciatica.org.

The 12 yoga poses included in the study:

Image from Dr. Fishman’s Study
  1. Tree (Vrksasana)
  2. Triangle (Uttitha Trikonasana)
  3. Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II
  4. Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)
  5. Reverse Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
  6. Locust (Salabhasana)
  7. Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)
  8. Supine hand-to-foot I (Supta Padangusthasana I)
  9. Supine hand-to-foot II (Supta Padangusthasana II)
  10. Straight-legged twist (Marichyasana II)
  11. Bent-knee twist (Matsyendrasana)
  12. Corpse (Savasana)

We do most of these poses in our classes on a very regular basis, as they were covered extensively in our 250-hour teacher training certification. It’s been eye-opening to learn that not all yoga poses are good for someone with bone loss issues, and could actually increase risk for a vertebral fracture – as in poses with extreme spinal flexion (as in, forward folds.) Yoga should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher who provides safe alternatives to classic poses, with an emphasis on proper alignment.

A gentle modification of Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)

I’m so excited for my students who have committed to a regular practice and seen some heartening benefits show up in the very fabric of their bones! They continue to do the work, and it’s wonderful to witness firsthand what could be part of a relatively low cost and low risk answer to maintaining strong healthy bones and avoiding broken ones. Yoga also comes with some pretty great “side effects,” such as better balance, improved posture and strength, and reduced levels of anxiety. Hope to see you and your beautiful bones on the mat soon!

For best bone health, Harvard Health recommends:

  • eating foods rich in calcium, such as low fat dairy products, sardines, salmon, green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
  • getting more vitamin D from the sun or a supplement
  • doing weight-bearing exercise every day
  • not smoking
  • not drinking too much alcohol

Note: if you are under 30, building bone so that your peak bone density score is as good as it can be could help you tremendously later in life! All of the above recommendations apply to those who are still building bone density.

Resources:

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