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Osteoporosis and exercise: debunking the biggest myth

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Osteoporosis, defined as an extreme loss of bone density, is one of the most common age-related conditions. It currently affects more than 200 million men and women worldwide.

Enter it into a Google search and you get a whopping 70.9 MILLION search results. Narrow that search to “osteoporosis and exercise” and you’re still at 43.5 million. That’s no small amount of information to sift through.

And here’s the crux — we know that almost anyone can post anything about any subject. So, when your clients run a search trying to understand more about osteoporosis and exercise, how do they even know what’s true? And how can you help them debunk deep-set myths and offer education in a way that will guide them toward a happier, healthier lifestyle?

Let’s dive right in by addressing the elephant in the room: The most common held belief surrounding osteoporosis and exercise is that low impact, lightweight, gentle exercises are the most beneficial, the “safest,” for clients who suffer from osteoporosis.

And that’s simply NOT true.

While it may seem counterintuitive, those lightweight, gentle movement exercises are going to be way riskier. What osteoporosis clients benefit from most is high-intensity resistance and impact training. Weights are good! Heavy load is good!

The Strength, Impact and Density Correlation

While there’s certainly plenty of misinformation out there, as you’re educating yourself and your clients about osteoporosis and what exercises they’ll benefit from most, take a look at this ReasearchGate study chronicling the connection between bone density and strength. There’s a ton of good stuff in there, but basically, as your clients strengthen their muscles, their bones benefit too! They’re not going to get that same benefit from light weights or light resistance.

And it’s not solely about prevention. The right exercises are safe and effective in treating osteoporosis and increasing bone density too! Studies from Science Direct (here and here), and The American Society for Bone and Mineral Research all demonstrate a direct correlation between mechanical load and management of osteoporosis.

We know these studies, though filled with great facts about exercise and osteoporosis, are also a lot to read through. Not to worry. Raphael and Cloe cover all of this and more in Episode 26 of our Pilates Elephants podcast.

Pilates and Osteoprosis

Many people often feel like osteoporosis is just a normal part of aging, and nothing can truly prevent this, but that’s not true! In fact, prevention starts at a young age. It’s no secret that our bodies do just about everything more efficiently when we are younger. That includes building and managing our bone density. If parents need one more reason to get their kids off the couch and outdoors, this is definitely a big one. Encouraging clients and their families to simply be active and strengthen their muscles is valuable.

So, can Pilates itself help treat osteoporosis? As we consider the invaluable benefits of resistance training in building muscles and couple that with our understanding that research provides a demonstrable correlation between muscle strength and bone density, then the answer is YES! Pilates is one way to improve bone health at any age. In fact, the International Osteoporosis Foundation recommends routine exercise to prevent osteoporosis. Bottom line – Pilates is typically safe and beneficial for individuals already diagnosed with osteoporosis, but clients should be encouraged to talk with their healthcare provider before starting any new exercise routine.

Cueing up that next breath for a client? Here’s when to pass

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A question we’ve heard plenty of times from students and professionals alike is how breath factors into our practice — or more to the point, should we even be cueing clients to breathe during their practice.

While breathing is naturally a big part of what we do here at, ahem, Breathe Education, the answer to this question is a little more variable than you might expect. Perhaps the more useful question here is why you would cue breath. The most basic reasons we might guide a client’s breathing are to relax the body and settle into the environment of the lesson. To that, it might be helpful to cue breath at the beginning or end of a class, if only to aid those transitions into or out of the Pilates headspace, or to help someone find a shape as they work through positions. We’ve all felt those instances where we can breathe our way through moments of discomfort or difficulty, so sometimes prompting that deliberate inhale-exhale can help push a stretch to the next level. That can be especially true in positions that involve spinal extensions or flexions, which map very nicely to the pattern of breathing. You can test this wherever you might be right now by taking a nice, deep in-breath. You’ll find your spine naturally wants to extend a bit, and then vice versa on the exhale.

Maybe the last big reason we’d cue someone’s breath is if we know they’re either pregnant and/or have high blood pressure. This is because breath-holding can actually raise our blood pressure as we go through the exercise, which can have some unintended side effects if those underlying conditions are present.

Ok, so those are instances where we might want to cue breath. So why wouldn’t we want to do that?

The simplest answer is this: Current research shows that motor learning (movement skills) is facilitated best by keeping things simple. Cue what is necessary to get people moving. This is especially important for beginners, who typically have enough to focus on already without the added layer of syncing up their breathing with all this unfamiliar repertoire. Breathing is the first thing we did when we were born, it’s not something we were taught to do so why do we feel the need to cue each and every breath?

So there we have it, our quick take on when and why to cue breathing! Our CEO and thinker-in-chief Raphael has touched on this subject a few times in his (very) helpful AMAs, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’ve got further questions.