But new research shows that yoga is surprisingly protective when it comes to staving off fractures and helping to prevent osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease that will cause approximately half of women age 50 and older to break a bone. (Men get osteoporosis too, but 80 percent of sufferers are female, likely because women typically have smaller, thinner bones and because production of estrogen—a female hormone that protects against bone loss—drops off sharply at menopause.) The hard truth is that by the time you hit the age when your skeleton becomes more brittle, it’s much more challenging (though not impossible) to build protective bone mass. Which is why the best time to focus on increasing your bone mass reservoir is now, says Loren Fishman, MD, a Columbia University physiatrist specializing in rehabilitative medicine who studied under B.K.S. Iyengar.
Ready to be more proactive about protecting your bones? Our three-part plan reveals which yoga poses may be particularly beneficial, regardless of your age, as well as new thinking behind the role of nutrition and high-impact, weight-bearing exercises on bone health. Read on for the latest research-backed ways to strengthen your lovely bones.
Part 1: Yoga
Great News: As a yogi, you’re already protecting your frame in a few major ways. For starters, each time you practice a pose, you’re potentially building new bone. “When you hold a pose like Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) or a twist, you’re opposing one group of muscles against another, like the quadriceps against the hamstrings or the gluteal muscles against the shoulder muscles, respectively,” says Fishman. That opposition creates a force that physically stimulates osteoblasts, bone-making cells that initially live on the outside of the bone and turn into osteocytes, which are cells that become embedded within your bone. “You’re actually laying down new bone,” he says.
Yoga may also help reverse or stall the bone-weakening effects that come with age—which is relatively new thinking in the medical world. Doctors used to believe that women’s ability to accrue new bone basically ended once they entered menopause and their levels of bone-protective estrogen and progesterone plummeted. “The new research shows that yoga can outweigh the hormonal effects of age,” Fishman says. His 2015 study, published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, found that 80 percent of older participants, most of whom had osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia, who practiced 12 yoga poses (often modified) a day showed improved bone density in their spine and femurs (see “Poses to boost bone health” below). These findings apply to younger women with healthy skeletons, too. “There is strong evidence that young osteoblasts do respond pretty vigorously to the forces generated by muscles, which is likely to put off osteopenia and osteoporosis until later in life—if it were to appear at all,” Fishman says.
Finally, there’s the vital role yoga plays in preventing fractures by building stability and agility. “Yoga improves your physical balance and flexibility, which means you’re less likely to fall and break something—and if you do start to fall, your agility may help you catch yourself,” says Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, DPT, C-IAYT, clinical director of the Yoga Therapy Rx Practicum at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and part-time faculty in LMU’s Master of Arts in Yoga Studies. Equally important, yoga enhances your mental balance, too. “It makes you more present and focused,” Rubenstein Fazzio says, and alert people are less likely to slip on an ice patch or trip on a staircase. More surprisingly, yoga’s calming qualities help lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that breaks down bone when it’s chronically elevated, says Lani Simpson, DC, a certified clinical (bone) densitometrist and host of the PBS show Stronger Bones, Longer Life. In this way, even passive poses like Savasana and Sukhasana can play a role in preventing bone loss.
Whatever your physical practice, slow and steady win the race for strength. “Strength builds as you hold each pose, which you should do for as long as you comfortably can,” says Rubenstein Fazzio. Aim to hold each pose between 12 and 72 seconds, when possible, because that’s the range needed to stimulate osteocytes, says Fishman. But don’t do it at the risk of form—good alignment is key. In Vrksasana (Tree Pose), for instance, make sure your pelvis is level and your standing leg’s knee is facing forward. “If your hip is jutting out or your standing knee is collapsing inward, you’re probably just hanging on your ligaments and joints and not using your muscles,” Rubenstein Fazzio notes, and if your muscles aren’t pulling on that hip bone, no meaningful bone-strengthening will occur. “You want to feel your muscles tensing; that’s how you know you’re engaging—and building—them. And when you build muscle, you build bone.”
See also Stand Strong: Yoga for Bone Health
12-Minute Yoga Sequence to Boost Bone Health
Practice poses from Loren Fishman’s bone-health research using the instructions at right from Terry Roth Schaff, C-IAYT, who collaborated with Fishman on the study. The sequence takes at least 12 minutes to complete and can be incorporated into your regular home practice or practiced on its own. Breathe slowly as you hold each pose for about 30 seconds per side.
Bonus Poses for Bone Health
Twists like Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), Marichyasana III, and —the three remaining poses from Fishman's study—help stimulate bone growth by gently tugging on your spine and hip bones. But if you have osteoporosis or are new to yoga, start by practicing seated twists in a chair to avoid overdoing it, advises Schaff. Sit in a chair with your heels under your knees and maintain length in your torso as you gently twist to the right, starting from your low back and moving up your spine. Keep both sides of your chest open and twist only to the point where you can maintain length in your spine (don't round your back). Repeat on other side. Then, practice the same twist with your legs crossed.