You may have seen recently in The New York Times a discussion of yoga’s benefits for joint and bone health. At the very end of the article was a mention of a 2009 pilot study by Dr. Loren Fishman that showed the benefits of yoga for osteoporosis. I found that study on-line and the initial results are impressive: among patients who regularly performed 10 minutes of yoga daily, spine and hip density generally increased during the 2-year study period. The study didn’t have a lot of compliant participants, so it’s not a strong finding, but it’s still eye-opening. But what’s interesting to me about this study is that while Dr. Fishman was focused upon the physiological benefits of yoga, there’s another way in which the benefits of yoga and other exercise methods like it can be also helpful to bones: stress reduction.
Worry, anxiety, and stress in general are detrimental to bone health
At the Center for Better Bones, many of the people I talk to have one factor in common: they are worried. Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are all forms of exercise that have an additional component: in various ways, they not only support physical strength and flexibility, but also mental and emotional relaxation. All of these forms emphasize the importance of deep breathing, of slow, controlled, focused movements, and of working the body and mind together — being present and mindful throughout the practice.
I like to quote the aphorism that there is no greater influence on the body than thoughts held in the mind. When thoughts are racing, anxious, negative in nature, it increases stress hormones — and long term, high levels of stress hormones deplete bone mineral reserves. By taking direct steps to calm an anxious, worried, depressed, or angry mind-set through these types of exercise, we can lessen the impact of stress hormones on the bones.
Now of course, taking up tai chi, qi gong, or yoga isn’t going to solve serious long-term mental health issues by themselves — and I often suggest to clients who suffer from such issues to work with a qualified therapist — but they can be one method of retraining your psyche toward more positive and uplifting emotions, with benefits for both mind and body. So when I offer yoga or tai chi as alternatives for clients who are exploring new methods of exercise, I do it in the hope of helping them not just to start getting more exercise, but also to make use of the power of their minds to help their bones.
Brody, J.E. 2011. Ancient moves for orthopedic problems. The New York Times, August 1, 2011.
Fishman, L.M. 2009. Yoga for osteoporosis: A pilot study. Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, 25(3), 244–250.