Weight-Bearing Exercises for Seniors: 6 Easy Ways to Boost Bone Health

Physical therapists share how to improve your bone health and strength with weight-bearing exercises.

Published Date: Oct 6, 2023
elderly-woman-doing-squat

Weight-Bearing Exercises for Seniors: 6 Easy Ways to Boost Bone Health

Physical therapists share how to improve your bone health and strength with weight-bearing exercises.

Published Date: Oct 6, 2023
elderly-woman-doing-squat

Weight-Bearing Exercises for Seniors: 6 Easy Ways to Boost Bone Health

Physical therapists share how to improve your bone health and strength with weight-bearing exercises.

Published Date: Oct 6, 2023
elderly-woman-doing-squat

Weight-Bearing Exercises for Seniors: 6 Easy Ways to Boost Bone Health

Physical therapists share how to improve your bone health and strength with weight-bearing exercises.

Published Date: Oct 6, 2023
elderly-woman-doing-squat
Table of Contents

There are lots of different types of exercise. Cardio. Strength training. Stretching. But for a lot of older adults, there’s one type that is often overlooked: weight-bearing exercise. It’s not part of the national Physical Activity Guidelines. You’ll rarely see it in article headlines. And if you ask people what it is, you’ll likely get a wide range of responses. Despite the understandable confusion around weight-bearing exercise, it can be a very effective addition to any exercise program, especially for older adults and those hoping to improve their bone health and balance.

Here, find out what weight-bearing exercise is, why it’s important for older adults, and how to get started with exercise recommendations from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Are Weight-Bearing Exercises?

“Weight-bearing exercises are any exercises that load your bones. They can be done in more than one way,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. For example, you could try moves that use your own body weight, like knee push-ups, planks, or wall sits. Or you can add dumbbells for exercises like biceps curls or lunges.  Weight-bearing exercises can also be aerobic activities. Think: walking, running, dancing, pickleball, playing basketball, or just about any activity where you’re on your feet and moving against gravity. While many exercises are weight-bearing, there are a few that aren’t — like swimming and cycling. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing activities like these if you enjoy them. Both provide great cardiovascular, strengthening, and mood-boosting benefits. Just be sure to include some bone-building, weight-bearing exercises in your routine too.

Benefits of Weight-Bearing Exercise

Keeping your bones strong is just one of the many benefits of weight-bearing exercise. It also increases muscle strength and improves posture, balance, and coordination. Lower body weight-bearing exercises tend to get more attention because the hips and lower back are common sites for osteoporosis-related fractures. However, your back and wrists are also susceptible, so weight-bearing exercises for those areas are essential, too.

Weight-bearing exercises strengthen all of the big muscles in your body, as well as the small, but equally important ones (your wrists, ankles, you get the idea). 

And they give your body constant feedback about where it is in space — called proprioception — which is pivotal for decreasing fall risk. “It's also great for overall function because most things we do are weight bearing,” says Dr. Stewart. “When you’re strong and have good posture, getting out of a chair is easier. If your balance is better, you'll feel more confident in day-to-day activities, like walking while carrying groceries. Weight-bearing exercise makes everyday tasks easier and safer to do.” Plus, weight-bearing exercises, like walking, running, and dancing, strengthen your heart and lungs, burn calories, and reduce your risk of diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Weight-Bearing Exercises and Osteoporosis

Okay, so let’s get back to your bones. When you do weight-bearing exercises — where your body makes contact with the ground — the impact stimulates bones to get stronger. These bone-strengthening effects are particularly important for older adults, because more than half of those 50 or older are at risk of breaking a bone because of osteoporosis or low bone density, according to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation. During midlife, you tend to maintain bone density, but as you get older, bone can break down faster than it can be rebuilt. This imbalance can eventually lead to low bone density (osteopenia) and osteoporosis. 

But let’s pivot to the bright spot: These changes aren’t inevitable. You have the ability to prevent or at least delay some of these declines by staying active. And it’s never too late to start.

The Exercises Seniors Need

Use it or lose it is good advice for older adults — and, really, anybody! In your 30s, not only do you start to lose bone density, but muscle mass also begins declining at a rate of about three to eight percent each decade. Less muscle strength also makes you prone to balance issues and falling, especially if you have low bone density or osteoporosis. 

“You want to maintain function and be able to do the things you want to do on a daily basis — get out of a chair or your bed, carry a pan from the stove to the sink, play pickleball or tennis, golf,” says Dr. Stewart. “So, you need to stay physically active to continue to have those functional abilities.”

To do that, you want a well-rounded exercise routine that includes weight-bearing exercises, cardio, flexibility exercises, and balance training. “Walking is great aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Stewart. “It’s great for weight-bearing through the legs, but you can’t forget the rest of your body.” So, if walking is your thing, you’ll want to round it out with upper-body weight-bearing exercises like wall push-ups or the ones below. And don’t forget to stretch for flexibility and practice some balance exercises.

What If You Love Non-Weight-Bearing Exercise?

If you enjoy a non-weight-bearing activity, like swimming, don’t worry. “I would never say give up the activities you love because they benefit the body in so many other ways,” says Dr. Stewart. And when exercise is enjoyable, you’re more likely to stick with it. You just need to add in some weight-bearing exercises like the ones below on alternate days, aiming for two to three times a week.

6 Weight-Bearing Exercises for Your Day

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  • Sit to Stand
  • Straight Arm Pulldowns
  • Shoulder Rows
  • Donkey Kicks
  • Side Plank on Knees
  • Squats

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Hinge Health physical therapists often recommend these exercises for people who could benefit from building strength — and they hit all of the major muscle groups in your body in just a few moves. Many of them are what are called compound exercises, meaning they target multiple muscles all at once, which makes them especially efficient..  

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

More Weight-Bearing Activities

Doing a variety of activities can make working out more fun, challenge your body in different ways, and protect against overuse injuries from doing too much of the same thing. Here are some other weight-bearing exercises to try.

  • Tai chi. This gentle exercise practice involves weight shifting the weight on your feet — strengthening your bones, improving balance and coordination, and reducing your risk of falling.

  • Yoga. Some poses involve upper-body, weight-bearing exercise, while other lower-body moves require balance, so it can be a total-body, strengthening workout. It also builds coordination and balance.

  • Walking. You can increase the bone-building impact of walking by picking up your pace or using light hand weights or water bottles.

  • Golf. Carry your bag of clubs as you walk from hole to hole.

  • Dancing. All the changes in direction as you move around the dance floor are another way to build bone, and will improve balance and coordination, lowering your risk of falling.

  • Hiking. The impact of going up and down hills and over rocks builds bone and muscle strength.

  • Racquet sports. Every time you hit the ball, that impact bolsters your wrist and arm bones. And your lower body gets the weight-bearing benefits, too.

Exercising with Osteoporosis

If you already have osteoporosis or osteopenia, you may feel a bit worried about exercising, which is understandable. You want to find safe, enjoyable activities for you. “Talk to your doctor first because they'll know exactly where you are, and what you need to keep in mind when exercising,” says Dr. Stewart. Recommendations vary based on how much bone density you have.

As a general guideline, you want to build up activity slowly and steadily. Don’t just go all in right away. At first, you may want to minimize high-impact activities like jumping or forceful bending, or activities with a high risk of falling, like mountain biking or skiing. “These are things that will put more stress on bones that might be affected by osteoporosis,” says Dr. Stewart. But the greater goal, she says, is to work on building back up to activities you love slowly. If you have questions about what’s appropriate for you, ask your doctor or physical therapist.

PT Tip: Sneak a Few Weight-Bearing Exercises Into Your Day

“You don’t have to overhaul your life to increase weight-bearing exercise,” says Stewart. “You can sneak it into your day-to-day activity.”

  • Do Sit to Stands from your chair on commercial breaks.

  • Go out for a five to 10-minute walk.

  • When putting cans or jars in your pantry, do some arm lifts or curls before stashing them.

  • Do heel raises while you’re waiting for your coffee.

  • Carry your groceries by yourself even if it means more trips.

“You don't have to avoid challenging activities; you just have to make them work for you,” says Stewart. “Find out how to modify an activity, and then work on increasing what you can tolerate.” For example, carry only one grocery bag at a time, or put less in each bag, so you can carry them.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

 

1. Exercise and Bone Health. (2020, July). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/staying-healthy/exercise-and-bone-health

2. Osteoporosis Fast Facts. (n.d.) Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.bonehealthandosteoporosis.org/wp-content/uploads/Osteoporosis-Fast-Facts-2.pdf

3. Anderson, T. B., Duong. H. (2023, May). Weight Bearing. StatPearls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551573

4. Brooke-Wavell, K., Skelton, D. A., Barker, K. L., Clark, E. M., Biase, S. D., Arnold, S., Paskins, Z., Robinson, K. R., Lewis, R. M., Tobias, J. H., Ward, K. A., Whitney, J., & Leyland, S. (2022). Strong, steady and straight: UK consensus statement on physical activity and exercise for osteoporosis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 56(15). doi:10.1136/bjsports-2021-104634. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/56/15/837

5. What is Bone Density? A Practical Guide for Older Adults. (2022, May 12). Bone Health for Older Adults. National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/article/what-is-bone-density-a-practical-guide-for-older-adults