Can exercise prevent osteoporosis? Plus, a handy excuse to skip the gym: Some people are actually allergic to exercise. Smart Fitness answers your workout queries.
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Q: I’m a woman who’s worried about developing osteoporosis because both my mother and grandmother have it. But can exercise really prevent it, or is it pretty much inevitable if it runs in your family? And if exercise can help, what kind and how much?
A: A strong family history is a big risk factor for osteoporosis, which affects an estimated 10 million Americans, most of them women, like those in your family, says Dr. Felicia Cosman, clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and medical director of the clinical research center at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, N.Y. But it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doomed to develop the brittle-bone condition or that there’s nothing you can do to help prevent it or reduce its severity.
Along with avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, getting good nutrition (including calcium and vitamin D) and in some cases taking osteoporosis medications, certain exercises indeed can help, Cosman says. “Weight-bearing exercise contributes to maintaining bone health.”
We reach our peak bone mass — the strongest our bones can be — in our 20s. So up until age 30, and particularly during childhood and adolescence, weight-bearing exercises such as jumping and running can help build stronger and stronger bones. After 30, studies show that weight-bearing exercise helps in another way — by preventing bone loss and therefore maintaining the bone strength that you already have.
Exercise must be weight-bearing to stimulate the bones to become strong and dense. Besides running and jumping, other examples of weight-bearing aerobic activity include racquet sports, dancing, basketball, hiking and high-impact fitness classes. Low- or no-impact activities such as cycling and swimming are good for all-around fitness, but they don’t help the bones.
Weight training, because it involves even greater resistance, challenges the bones more. A good starting point is a standard strength program, using free weights or weight machines, that targets all the major muscle groups with one to three sets of eight to 10 repetitions of each exercise. Over time, fitness experts say, it’s a good idea to periodically mix things up with different combinations of sets, reps and specific exercises.
Ideally, Cosman recommends, aim to do weight-bearing aerobic exercise at least three times a week for 30 minutes each time, and strength-training activities two times a week. She also advises older people especially to work on flexibility and balance to avoid bone-breaking falls. Statistics show that one in two women over age 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture, most commonly of the hip, spine or wrist.
Unfortunately, all of this exercise isn’t an absolute guarantee against osteoporosis. “Even if you do everything you can, you may not be able to stave it off,” Cosman says. “But you can help make it from getting worse.”
And it’s never too late to start.
Q: Why is it that sometimes when I go running my skin will start to itch like I have poison ivy, to the point where I have to stop running?
A: Believe it or not, some people are truly allergic to exercise, says Dr. Jacqueline Eghrari-Sabet, an allergist in private practice in Montgomery Village, Md., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
A rare condition called exercise-induced anaphylaxis can cause a person to experience a potentially deadly allergic reaction, just like the ones some suffer in response to peanuts, shellfish or bee stings. The symptoms can vary in severity and may not occur after every exercise session. In some cases, certain foods consumed prior to exercise may trigger it.
Another possibility, Eghrari-Sabet says, is a condition called cholinergic urticaria, in which pinpoint-size hives — and lots of itching — develop in response to rising body temperature and sweating during exercise.
You don’t mention hives or other symptoms, so “whatever it is, it’s probably a milder form of these more serious things,” she says.
Still, it’s a good idea to see an allergist to figure out the problem and make sure you’re not at risk for a more severe reaction. A doctor may suggest trying allergy medications to try to lessen the problem.
To determine if the culprit is cholinergic urticaria, a specialist may recommend exercising without heating up the body — such as with swimming — to see if the problem persists. If it doesn’t, a new exercise routine may be in order.