Osteoporosis is a disease, often associated with the elderly, that’s defined by the thinning and weakening of a person’s bone structure. The condition results in a higher risk of breaks and perhaps a vast reduction of one’s mobility and quality of life.
Here on Earth, we may reasonably assume that the zero-gravity conditions experienced by astronauts in space would be relatively easy on the body. But this simply isn’t so, especially where astronaut’s bones are concerned, confirms Raj Acharya, head of computer science and engineering at Penn State University and a former research fellow at NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Why is this? According to Acharya, it’s because astronauts miss out on weight-bearing exercises, the types of exercise we get here on Earth by simply moving around through gravity’s resistance. And the lack of such force on our bodies leads to the deterioration of bone mass – deterioration similar to conditions experienced by the 10 million people in the U.S. who suffer from osteoporosis.
To prevent such bone deterioration, NASA prescribes measures similar to what medical researchers suggest work best in preventing the onset of osteoporosis.
“NASA … is using counter measures such as exercise to combat the effects of microgravity on the bones of astronauts,” Acharya said.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), besides the 10 million Americans who already suffer from the disease, many more – 34 million people, by some estimates – have low bone mass, putting them at high risk of developing osteoporosis.
But through the years, researchers have concluded that those at risk of the disease can slow its onset.
“Thirty years ago, most people thought osteoporosis and the broken bones it can cause were a part of normal aging,” states the NOF. “That view has changed. Researchers today know a lot about how you can protect your bones throughout life.”
Through lifestyle changes, such as getting enough calcium and vitamin C and moderating caffeine and alcohol intake, the onset of osteoporosis can be stalled. NASA’s emphasis on exercise is also good medicine – perhaps the best medicine – for combatting the reduction of bone density here on Earth, studies suggest.
“Our work provides more evidence that physical activity is important for maintaining bone density,” said Dr. Joseph Cannon, Kellet Chair in Allied Health Sciences and principal investigator in a 2010 National Institute of Aging-funded study on osteoporosis. “It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it.”
Rachel Levenson agrees that adults should always strive to “build up their bones” through diet and exercise. Levenson is the associate director of nursing and patient safety for NHS Somerset.
“Your skeleton will grow stronger if you do regular weight-bearing exercise such as jogging, aerobics, tennis, dancing, and brisk walking,” she said. “As you get older, you may need to be careful of vigorous, high-impact exercise, but it’s still very important to stay active and find something you enjoy doing. Swimming, gardening, walking, or golfing can help reduce your risk of falling and breaking a bone.”
Studies even suggest that exercise you did in your 20s can actually lower your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.
For preventing osteoporosis, the NOF recommends 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercises daily. These include many of the activities mentioned by Levenson – walking, jogging, hiking, dancing, stair climbing, etc. The NOF also recommends strength and resistance training two to three times per week. This can include free weights, weight machines, yoga, Pilates, etc.
“… people who are more active strengthen their muscles and bones, and that can help them stay physically stable and secure,” said Professor Peter Sawicki, director of the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, which has extensively studied osteoporosis prevention. “People may gain more confidence in their bodies and that might mean a lower risk of stumbling and falling.”
Of course, before trying any new exercise regimen, be sure to consult your doctor or physical therapist. He or she will be able to prescribe the right exercise program for you based on personal medical history, fitness level, and lifestyle.
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