Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones. It has very few symptoms but over time results in a loss of bone density. As the bones become weaker there is a higher risk of a fracture or an injury. Whilst yoga brings a wide range of benefits to our health and well-being, it is still a physical activity regardless of how gently we practise. If you have low bone density, it is important to take this into account when deciding on the yoga style and approach you choose.
Osteoporosis is more common in women, but men can also suffer from the condition. We build bone density until we reach our twenties and it starts to decline when we are around thirty-five. We lose bone density at different rates and not everyone will suffer with osteoporosis. However, it is a silent condition and it is important to have an awareness of the factors that can contribute to it before it becomes a problem.
There are a variety of causes of osteoporosis. Some we can control, such as smoking, diet, and alcohol consumption. Others are beyond our control and are genetic, age related, or a complication from an existing health condition. Oestrogen plays an important role in the bone renewal process, and osteoporosis typically develops in women after menopause when the level of oestrogen in the body declines.
There are two types of bone in the body: trabecular bone (20%) and cortical bone (80%). Trabecular bone is more prone to osteoporosis and typically forms the curved bones in the body, such as the vertebrae in the spine. It is also found in the shoulder, ankle, wrist, and hip joints. Cortical bones have a denser structure and form the longer bones in the body. A bone might be made up of cortical bone in the middle and trabecular bone on the ends where it is curved and forms a joint.
There are no early visible symptoms of osteoporosis and it is often only discovered following a fracture. A DEXA scan is a common diagnostic tool for bone density, and might be used in conjunction with a FRAX assessment. This assessment takes into account your health and lifestyle in addition with other tests to assess your overall risk of developing the condition.
I had a DEXA scan a few years ago which showed that I had borderline osteopenia in my hips. Osteopenia is the name given to reduced bone density that is not severe enough for a diagnosis of osteoporosis. It was a shock, but I am glad that I got an early warning. My results led me to research the condition and to investigate where yoga is beneficial and where more caution and understanding of the condition is needed.
The good news is that there is more research into, and awareness of, osteoporosis these days. There are a variety of treatments available as well as preventative steps that we can take earlier in life. The Royal Osteoporosis Society website https://theros.org.uk has a wide range of detailed information on all aspects of the condition.
The Royal Society for Osteoporosis recommends weight bearing exercise with impact, and muscle strengthening exercises, to promote bone health. Weight bearing exercise with impact can range from brisk walks to a wide variety of sports that involve adding an additional force through your skeleton. Muscle strengthening exercises also help to strengthen bones as stronger muscles give your bones more work to do. A wide variety of exercise is recommended to promote bone health and health in general.
Yoga brings many benefits when working with osteoporosis and osteopenia. One of the main areas that yoga can help is with improving your balance and stability. If you have low bone density, improving your balance is essential to help to reduce the risk of a fall. Unfortunately, if you have osteoporosis a fall is more likely to result in a fracture which could be serious.
Yoga also helps improve agility, posture, strength, body awareness and overall confidence. Making improvements to posture can help to reduce rounding in the upper back which will help to prevent fractures developing in the vertebra of the spine. Learning to engage the postural muscles when we move also improves our strength and stability, making us less prone to injury.
The skills and awareness we learn in yoga also translate into other daily activities and help us to create more supportive movement patterns. If you become aware of your posture in a yoga pose you will become more aware of it in other activities too. It can be quite a surprise when you discover postural habits of which you were unaware before you started to explore yoga. A yoga practice can often make us more aware of where our muscles are weak and need to be strengthened.
However, as with any activity, it is important to ensure you are working in the safest and most beneficial way for your body. If you are an experienced yoga practitioner you might make the modifications you need and continue your practice, but it is still a good idea to let your yoga teacher know you have low bone density. If you are a beginner, I highly recommend asking your yoga teacher if they have experience of working with clients who have low bone density and if they can offer modifications to keep you safe in the class.
It is possible to have a varied, enjoyable and highly beneficial yoga practice if you have osteoporosis or osteopenia. By learning more about the condition and taking advice from experts, you will feel empowered and able to find a yoga practice that makes sense for your body – which is what we want from yoga after all.
I do not have a medical qualification and would always recommend taking medical advice before starting an exercise program if you have low bone density. However, I would be delighted to talk to you about tailoring your yoga practice around any advice you have been given.
I recommend reading “Yoga for Better Bones” by Margaret Martin
I also recommend visiting The Royal Osteoporosis Society website https://theros.org.uk It has extensive information that will help you understand the condition and a helpline if you would like to speak to an expert.
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