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Growing Stronger Bones
May 11, 2000

May is National Osteoporosis Prevention Month, and for more than 28 million Americans low bone density is a problem that causes brittle bones to easily fracture and reduce quality of life. But help for this disease might be found in your own back yard.

A team of researchers from the University of Arkansas recently released a study that showed that women aged 50 and over who garden at least once a week showed higher bone density readings, which are used to diagnose osteoporosis, than women who engage in almost any other form of exercise.

And the Winner Is &

Using data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lori Turner, a health sciences professor at the University of Arkansas, was able to look at more than 3,000 women aged 50 and over. By studying their bone density measurements and comparing them to various physical activities, she found that the two activities that most strongly predicted positive bone density were weight training and yard work, beating out jogging, swimming, walking and aerobics.

Do Men Get Osteoporosis?

Even though men have larger, stronger bones than women, they can still get osteoporosis. The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that today two million men have the disease and three million more are at risk. One out of eight men over the age of 50 will have a fracture related to the disease in their lifetime.

Like women, men can help prevent osteoporosis if they do weight-bearing exercise, stop smoking, avoid too much alcohol, and get plenty of calcium and vitamin D. But their risk factors are different. Prolonged exposure to steroids, anticonvulsants and aluminum-containing antacids puts men at risk for the disease, as do certain chronic diseases and low levels of testosterone.

Researchers have known for a long time that weight-bearing exercise can strengthen bones and help prevent osteoporosis. But finding that gardening has such a positive effect was unexpected. "Initially we were a little bit surprised because many people believe that it s just a dainty activity and there s not much involved," says Turner.

But when they thought about it, Turner and her team realized that activities like cutting the grass, pulling weeds and digging holes are actually weight-bearing and therefore strengthening. What s more, women who work in their yards tend to do so at least once a week, if not daily. The study found that 42 percent of the women were already doing some type of yard work.

Gardening has several advantages over other forms of exercise. "If somebody starts an exercise program where they re going to be jogging or walking on a treadmill and they ve never done it before and they hate it, they re not likely to stick with it," Turner points out. On the other hand, people who garden generally do it as a labor of love (so it contributes to their emotional health as well), without even thinking about the physical benefits. Also, because people like to do it (or because they have to, as with cutting the grass), it s a regimen they seem to be able to stick to easily. What s more, gardening is also safe, especially compared to activities like jogging.

Working outside has another advantage as well. Exposure to sunlight causes the skin to produce Vitamin D, which enhances calcium absorption in the bones. But Turner doesn t recommend going outside without sunscreen, since it only takes about five to 10 minutes of exposure for the skin to make Vitamin D.

But is it enough?

Osteoporotic vs normal bone

Osteoporosis, which means porous bone, affects more than 28 million Americans, 80 percent of them women. It causes deterioration of the bone tissue, causing bones to become weak and brittle, leaving them susceptible to fractures. Although it s easy to detect, osteoporosis can often go unnoticed because there are no symptoms associated with bone loss. Patients may not even know they have it until a sudden bump or fall causes a fracture. It can be diagnosed by means of a bone density test, which is like an X-ray and allows doctors to measure a patient s bone mass.

Osteoporosis is usually treated with estrogens, but research has shown that there are steps women can take to prevent it. The National Institutes of Health recommends the following:

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D
  • Do weight-bearing exercise
  • Don t smoke or drink too much alcohol
  • Get a bone density test at age 50

In addition to vitamin D, recent studies have also shown that women who consumed more vitamin K had 30 percent fewer fractures. The American Dietetic Association recommends plenty of dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains and beans and at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day to increase vitamin K intake. Turner also points out that crash diets that limit dairy foods are unhealthy and should be avoided. Although osteoporosis most commonly strikes women over 50, Turner says that it is not a natural part of aging.

Elsewhere on the web:

National Osteoporosis Foundation, with a wealth of information, events listings and advocacy groups.

National Institutes of Health - Osteoporosis Overview, including recommended calcium intakes.

EndocrineWeb’s Osteoporosis Center, with information on diagnosis, bone maintenance and the effects of menopause on osteoporosis.

Garden.com, "everything under the sun."



by Jill Max


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