Bone density and cycling

Participating regularly in cycling can help improve your cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and mental health, as well as help keep the weight down and control diabetes. Unfortunately, cycling is not a form of exercise that helps improve your bone density.

The terms osteoporosis and osteopenia are used to signify bone density below normal values. Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become thin, weak and fragile, such that even a minor bump or accident can cause a broken bone (minimal trauma fracture). An example of this would be sustaining a broken wrist or hip from falling over whilst walking, this amount of force would not normally be sufficient to cause a bone of normal density to fracture. Osteoporosis is not a painful condition, you will only experience pain if you suffer a fracture that results from being osteoporotic. Osteopenia is where your bone density is lower than normal but not so much that you are likely to sustain a fracture from a minor trauma.

How do you know if your bone density is “normal”?

When you have a DEXA scan (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry), your report may give T-score and Z-score values. The Tscore is a comparison of a person’s bone density with that of healthy 30-year-olds of the same sex. The Zscore is a comparison of a person’s bone density with that of an average person of the same age and sex.

According to the WHO, a T-score of -1.0 or above is normal bone density.

T-scores between -1.0 and -2.5 indicate that you have osteopenia.

T-scores of -2.5 or less signify osteoporosis.

A combination of medication, exercise and a diet that includes calcium can be utilised to improve your bone density. You will need to seek the advice of your GP in regards to which medications may be appropriate for you and a dietician if you have Crohn’s disease or dairy intolerances etc.

Bones “listen” to the amount of load placed upon them and react accordingly to how strong they make themselves. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, then your bones will respond accordingly to your reduced activity level by resorbing bone tissue/calcium as opposed to laying more down. Impact activities such as running and jumping are great at stimulating bone cells to lay down new bone. Sports that involve jumping and changes in direction are better than running alone at stimulating bone formation. Bones stop “listening” to regular running after a few minutes due to its repetitive and monotonous nature. Weight training is also great at loading the body and stimulating bone formation. Despite the effort or level of competition, sports such as swimming, cycling and rowing are not as effective at loading bone tissue in such a way so as to promote strong bone formation.

Depending on the amount of time spent in space, astronauts return to earth with reduced bone density due to the effects of zero gravity (no load).

Walking is frequently promoted as a form of exercise that can improve your bone density. If you have low bone density, then the mild-moderate impact of walking may be sufficient to improve your bone density up to a certain point. Once your bones have built themselves up to “cope with walking” they will remain at that level of density. To stimulate your bones to continue to become stronger, you will need to choose activities that have greater loading forces than walking eg: stomping up/down stairs, skipping, running, weight training.

Improving your bone density is a slow process. If you have osteoporosis, it is recommended that you seek professional advice regarding the type of exercise that will be suitable for you. Loading needs to be appropriate for your current level of bone density and gradually increased as your bone density improves. This process will take many months. Once you’ve attained a satisfactory improvement in your bone density, you will need to continue with your “bone maintenance work” otherwise you will lose what you have worked so hard to obtain. Performing weights training 2-3 x a week is enough to stimulate bone formation and improve your density.

There are many reasons as to why a person may develop osteoporosis. The Osteoporosis Australia website has a significant amount of information available on the causes of and treatment for persons with osteoporosis.

For persons wanting advice and guidance on what sort of exercise they should do to improve their bone density, then consulting a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist, with an interest in this area, would be recommended.