Tai Chi for Strong Bones

Have you considered Tai Chi for strong bones? The older we get, the more our bones deteriorate.

From middle age onwards, our body reabsorbs the cells that form the structure of our bones faster than the body is able to generate new bones. Consequently, we begin to have decreased bone mineral density (BMD). BMD is an indicator of the strength of a bone and the likelihood of fracture. Decreased BMD increases the risk of fractures.

Discussions about BMD are often targeted to women, but the information is relevant for men as well.  While women are more susceptible to decreased BMD due to estrogen and men tend to have a higher BMD than women at middle age, men also eventually suffer from decreased BMD. Therefore both men and women need to take steps to preserve their BMD.

Preservation is important because decreased BMD leads to osteopenia and osteoporosis, both of which lead to fractures. Osteopenia is a condition wherein your BMD is lower than your normal peak, but is not low enough to be considered Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis means “porous bones” and is a progressive bone disease that is characterized by low BMD.

People who suffer from Osteoporosis often fracture their bones in situations where persons without Osteoporosis would not fracture their bones. For example, a person with healthy BMD who trips and falls is unlikely to break his or her hip. Hip fractures in people with peak BMDs are usually as a result of serious injuries like those inflicted by a high-speed, high-impact car crash.  However, a person with low BMD may break his or her hip by simply falling on the floor inside his or her house after tripping on a shoe.

Most of these fractures are in the hip, rib, shoulder, spine or wrist. Hip fractures are often serious and require surgical correction. This is due the fact that hip fractures can lead to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolisms which can lead to death if not resolved. Hip fractures create an injury which sends a signal to the blood to clot as a form of repair. If a clot is dislodged it may travel to the lungs or heart and that can kill  you!

Apart from the broken bones, Osteoporotic fractures affect posture (often stooping), loss of height and often reduced mobility. Additionally, a person with fragile bones is likely to be afraid of falling. Fear of falling leads to less physical activity which leads to lower muscle and bone strength. Reduced muscle and bone strength are associated with falls. Therefore, Osteoporosis or low BMD can create a vicious cycle that puts you at risk for a fall. When you do fall, with Osteoporosis, Osteopenia or other low BMD you are more likely to suffer a serious injury. Consequently, you should try activities that may help you maintain, increase or restore your BMD, like Tai Chi.

According to Dr. Paul Mystkowski of Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, weight-bearing exercises improve bone health. Tai Chi is a weight-bearing exercise and is perfect for persons who cannot perform high-intensity, high impact workouts, which is often the case with older adults, and specifically people with low BMD.

A 2004 study compared bone loss in a group of Tai Chi participants compared to a control group. The women in the Tai Chi group participated for 45 minutes a day, 5 days a week for one year. They “…enjoyed a rate of bone loss up to three-and-a-half times slower than the non-tai-chi group. Their bone health gains showed up on bone mineral density tests. The reason for this may be that Tai Chi movements are slow, and often involve longer periods committed to standing on a single leg, and slightly flexed stances which lead to an increased loading on the skeleton, especially in the lower extremities, or simply – the legs. This loading strengthens the bones.

 

Several small studies have shows us that Tai Chi may  increase bone density and reduce age-related bone loss.  However, keep in mind that we still need larger and longer-term studies to really understand Tai Chi and BMD. That being said, it is well-documented that Tai Chi prevents falls and even if we may not have completely documented Tai Chi and BMD, Tai Chi is therefore a great way to reduce fall-related fractures.

Sources:

Kim DH, Vaccaro AR (2006). “Osteoporotic compression fractures of the spine; current options and considerations for treatment”. The spine journal : official journal of the North American Spine Society 6 (5): 479–87. doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2006.04.013. PMID 16934715.

http://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/living-with-osteoporosis-7/exercise-weight-bearing

Wayne, Peter, and Mark Fuerst. The Harvard medical school guide to tai chi: 12 weeks to a healthy body, strong heart, and sharp mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print.

 

 

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