Did you know that dancing is considered one of the most effective activities to reduce the risk of osteoporosis?
According to Osteoporosis Australia, dancing and gymnastics are highly osteogenic, which means they have a high capacity to build bone mass, a major contributing factor to avoiding osteoporosis.
“The evidence is clear that regular weight bearing physical activity plays an important role in bone development, maintaining bone density and muscle strength; bones react to pressure and strain by becoming stronger,” says Anthony Dileo of Melbourne Osteopathy Group. “To reduce the risk of osteoporosis through dancing, though, you need to make sure that you are doing it regularly, and if not, you must also incorporate other forms of exercise known to reduce your risk.”
Other forms of exercise that are highly osteogenic include impact aerobics, netball, basketball, tennis, jump rope and hiking.
Osteoporosis is a disease that affects over one million Australians. It occurs when bones lose calcium and other minerals more quickly than the body can replace them, which leads to a loss of bone mass. The bones become brittle, which means they are at higher risk of fractures and breaks.
Although osteoporosis usually occurs in older people, it is essential to look after your bone health from a young age, as this is when your body is able to build bone mass. How we can manage bone health changes throughout life.
“The goal of a young dance student should be to incrementally increase and maximise bone strength through regular dance classes and exercise,” says Dileo. “This is an important time where most bone density is developed – peak density is achieved during the mid-late 20s. Education on dance and exercise frequency, along with a balanced diet, is essential at this stage.”
For more physically mature professional dancers, the aim should be optimising and maintaining muscle and bone strength by continuing to train and exercise regularly.
“Training diversity through incorporating multiple types of activities will also allow greater maintenance during this time,” Dileo explains. “Bone density is maintained, slightly increased or gradually declines by age 30-40, and incorporating dietary complementation is essential here.”
Low body weight is also a risk factor for osteoporosis, so it’s essential that dancers eat well, not just for optimal performance but also to protect bones and muscles.
“A young or professional dancer with a very disciplined and over-restricted diet is considered in the risk group for osteoporosis,” says Anna Tetlow, owner of Anna Tetlow Pilates, Melbourne’s preeminent rehab and movement therapy centre. “Osteopenia, which dancers are at risk of, is where there is a lower than normal bone density level, but this can be reversed before it becomes low enough to be classified as osteoporosis.”
Calcium is particularly important – so choose canned salmon or sardines, dairy, greens, almonds and dried fruit.
“Almost 99 percent of the body’s calcium is found in the bones, as it combines with other minerals to form hard crystals for bones strength and structure,” says Dileo. “Calcium is also used for other functions of the body, including the heart, our muscles, blood and nerves. If other organs are using our calcium stores and they’re not being replenished, it can increase your risk of osteoporosis.”
Aim for three to five servings of calcium-rich food daily, but remember that we don’t absorb all the calcium we consume, so some of it can be lost. Things that may reduce our calcium absorption include low vitamin D levels, excessive caffeine, alcohol, smoking, diets high in phytates (e.g. some cereals and brans) or oxalates (e.g. spinach, rhubarb, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes), certain medical conditions (e.g. celiac disease, thyroid conditions, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease) and some medicines (e.g. certain breast cancer medications, certain anti-depressant medications, prednisone and prednisolone).
“You should consult with your health professional with regards to management of your calcium intake if these factors may be influencing it,” advises Dileo.
It is preferable to obtain the calcium you need from your diet. Where that’s not possible, Osteoporosis Australia recommends doses of 500-600 mg per day, but it is recommended you consult with a health professional first.
Vitamin D assists the body with calcium absorption. For most Australians, the main source of vitamin D is through the sun, and some people don’t need much – depending on location. During winter (midday), moderately fair-skinned types require seven to 30 minutes, while darker-skinned types require 20 minutes to three hours of direct sun on the arms. During summer (mid morning/mid afternoon), fairer people should aim for five to 10 minutes, and darker-skinned 15-60 minutes.
The reason that dancing is so good for your bones is that it’s a weight-bearing exercise. You can also support this with progressive resistance training (training that becomes more challenging for the body over time). Reformer Pilates and Garuda are excellent choices for dancers. If possible, look for a studio that specialises in dance technique coaching and injury management.
One such studio is Anna Tetlow Pilates, in Melbourne.
“Pilates and Garuda equipment classes are the perfect exercise techniques for both osteoporosis prevention and osteoporotic clients,” says Tetlow. “Dancers can work hard and increase their bone density whilst focusing on postural alignment, muscle efficiency and correcting technique whilst ultimately reducing the effects of osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises are achieved using the machines with a spring resistance, in a controlled and individualised exercise program. “
Unfortunately, there are no early warning signs of osteoporosis. If you are concerned or have some of the risk factors associated with osteoporosis, you should discuss this with your health professional who may refer you for further testing and a bone density scan. Osteoporosis can be treated, and there are a range of treatment options available for management. To assist with management, it is very important that osteoporosis is detected as early as possible, so education is essential.
A former dancer herself, Tetlow’s advice for dancers is to “educate yourself about the possible consequences in later life after a dancing career is over and to make sure you look after your body now so it can look after you later. Exercise intelligently, and dance for longer whilst increasing your bone density and refuse the effects of osteoporosis.”
In short: keep dancing regularly, eat well and look after yourself. It’s your best bet for staying healthy and strong!
By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.