get bone smart

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Students in my classes are often concerned about Osteopenia, low bone mass, or Osteoporosis, bone deterioration. It seems that by a certain age, almost everyone has some degree of bone loss which is a natural part of aging. In a recent article published in Yoga Journal Magazine, yoga and a plant-based diet may be the best choices for bone health. You can slow – and sometimes even reverse –bone loss by tackling it head-on, but it takes time and a concerted effort.

The National Institutes of Health estimate that 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and another 34 million have osteopenia. Although, men have it, too, when it comes to bone loss, women suffer more.

A plant-based diet of alkaline –rich fruits and vegetables and keeping acidic foods; cheese, meat, eggs and fish to a minimum creates a foundation for healthy bones. That’s because proteins are acid forming and when too much acid enters the blood stream, the body pulls calcium, which is alkaline, from bone to neutralize it. Lynda Frassetto, MD, a kidney specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the principal author of a cross-cultural study on how protein in the diet impact bone health looked at diet and hip fracture in 33 countries. She found a direct link between high consumptions of animal protein and a higher number of hip fractures in women age 50 and older.

In Yoga you perform many weight-bearing exercises where you hold the weight of your body up against gravity. Resisting gravity puts a mild stress on the bones. That stress forces bones into laying down new growth without damaging cartilage or stressing the joints as in jogging, walking or even playing tennis. Instead, it lengthens muscles and holds them there, creating tension on the bone.

According to Sara Meeks, a Kripalu yoga teacher since 1984 and a physical therapist specializing osteoporosis, that pull of muscle on the bone is the single major factor in bone strength. Practicing weight-bearing poses like; Tree Pose (Vrksasana), Chair Pose (Utkatasana), Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana with arms at the sides), Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Triangle Pose (Trikonasana), Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svansasana),Warrior Pose I (VirabhadrasanaI), Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), and Alternate arm and leg lifts (start on all fours, and lift and extend opposite arm and leg) are sufficient to trigger new bone growth and strengthen your skeleton. Stay in each pose for a minimum of 30 seconds or try holding each one for five breaths.

According to Meeks, in Warrior I and II, the legs are weight bearing because they support the body’s weight. But by bending the front knee to 90 degrees, you do more than simply bear weight in the front leg; you magnify the force on the femur, the largest, longest, and strongest single bone in the body, says Loren Fishman, MD, an assistant clinical professor at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and the co-author of Yoga for Osteoporosis. It is the head of the femur which tapers into a thin neck, and is the most vulnerable part of the upper femur. This is generally the site where fractures happen due to osteoporosis. In Warrior II, you’re also adding force to the shoulder joint when you hold your arms out away from your body. This puts a lot more stress on the head of your humerus (upper arm bone), one of three bones that forms the shoulder joint, than you would if they were hanging at your sides.

According to Annie Kay, MS, RD, an integrative dietician at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a yoga therapist and the former director of the osteoporosis awareness program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, “We absolutely see a strong correlation between a plant-based diet and bone mineral density.” A study published in the journal Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation showed that over a two year period participants who practiced yoga regularly gained bone in both the spine and the hip. It seems that by putting tremendous pressure on the bones without harming the joints, yoga may be the answer to osteoporosis.

If you want to prevent bone loss, any amount of yoga will likely prevent or reverse early-stage bone loss. If you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, deep forward bends should not be practiced to the full pose or your full range. They may cause a spinal fracture by excessively loading the front of the vertebrae compared with your back. Deep twists are another potential danger zone because they can put the spine in a vulnerable position. Supine twists are preferred as they support the spine and it is elongated.

If you are still in prevention mode, all poses are up for grabs, including forward bends, back bends, twists, and inversions. If you build up the bones when you are young, you can afford to lose a little bit as you age.

Although gentle Hatha Yoga has its benefits developing a more strength-building practice is essential to enhance bone health. Pack your diet with low-acid veggies like kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and tomatoes. Enjoy low-acid fresh fruits like apples, pineapple, bananas, oranges and peaches. Limit high-acid forming foods like cheese, meat, eggs, and fish. Most importantly come to yoga with a smile, and ready to move.

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