As a physician and advocate of integrative medicine, I have shown that Yoga can improve upon or substitute for traditional Western medical treatments for osteoporosis, which affects 200 million people worldwide. And I have co-authored “Yoga for Osteoporosis” (scheduled for publication by WW Norton on March 29, 2010) to provide individuals some achievable control over their own bone health.
Both men and women are subject to osteoporosis; 50% of hip fractures in people over 55 contribute either to death or to nursing home admissions. It’s well-known that physical activity, weight-bearing and strenuous exercise, will help keep osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, at bay. But much strenuous weight-bearing exercise has serious disadvantages, which must not be underestimated when thinking about your health, while Yoga has unique and wonderful advantages.
High impact aerobic activity, and even jumping rope, (which has recently and mistakenly been recommended for osteoporosis) leads directly to osteoarthritis. That foot-pounding, hips flexing, knee impacting, spine-jarring activity takes men and women trying to prevent or reduce bone loss out of the frying pan and puts them in the fire of developing painful, crippling hard-to-control osteoarthritis. Older people are confronted by a dilemma: Too much impact exercise and you will help your bones while hurting your joints. Don’t exercise and your osteoporosis will advance. It’s both ends of the bone against the middle.
While Yoga is no panacea, it does provide weight-bearing exercise with none of the dangers that lead to osteoarthritis. Yoga pits one muscle group against another to generate forces far greater than gravity. Yoga is isometric exercise. It is also weight bearing. Both of these types of activity have been proven to improve bone strength. Unlike most forms of “weight-bearing” activity, Yoga does not damage cartilage or lead to osteoarthritis, another peril of aging. Yoga stretches the muscles, increasing the range of motion that osteoarthritis otherwise inexorably narrows. By improving range of motion, Yoga counters the chief and sometimes terrible impairment that comes with osteoarthritis.
Some Yoga postures seem to have been designed many hundreds of years ago specifically for those who want to keep their bones strong. That’s one reason my co-author Ellen Saltonstall and I wrote “Yoga for Osteoporosis”. In the book we describe which Yoga poses are good for preventing or reversing bone loss safely and give detailed instructions about how to do them. Every pose is presented with three different levels of difficulty: one to be done by beginners, one for intermediate, and then the classical pose, generally for experienced practitioners. Every pose has a list of contraindications, and modifications for people with different levels of physical well-being.
“Yoga for Osteoporosis” includes the results of the pilot clinical study I did to examine just how much Yoga can help this dangerous condition. During the two-year study, participants added more than 3/4 of a point on the T scale in their DEXA bone density tests for the spine and 4/5 of a point for the all-important hip, with only 10 short minutes of yoga daily. That means that participants hovering about half-way between osteoporosis and osteopenia — those with a diagnosis of osteopenia – improved enough to re-enter the normal range. Several of the patients who had full-blown osteoporosis improved enough to be re-classified as having osteopenia.
The average age of people in my study was 68 years, but Yoga would have helped if they were as young as seven years old or as old as 107, either to prevent, halt or reverse the process of bone loss. Eminently portable, quiet and just about free, yoga has few undesirable side-effects. Participants in my study did over 20,000 hours of yoga. There was not one injury!
Since I did that pilot clinical trial, more than two hundred people have asked for the video I made to help them do the Yoga correctly and have joined the larger study that is now progress. I have been following the results, which are, taken as a whole, retaining their significance.
Yoga’s other positive effects that have been demonstrated fairly persuasively (by Western standards) include reducing lower back pain and blood pressure, better coordination, better posture and increasing the thickness of the cortical layers of the cerebrum.. In addition, Yoga improves strength, refines balance and fosters calm. All in all, there are few if any ways as simple and effective for treating osteoporosis.