Yoga Done Right is Good for the Bones

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Some forms of yoga help people with osteoporosis

By Laura Shin

Yoga and Pilates classes have become increasingly popular in the fitness world in recent years. Now, experts say that if practiced in a modified way, these exercises could prevent-and even treat-osteoporosis.

"When you stimulate the bones, it builds up bone density. If you start out with good bone density you'll be better off when you start losing it-and everyone loses it as they get older," said Ellen Saltonstall, a certified Anusara yoga teacher and co-author of the book Yoga for Osteoporosis.

Yoga is beneficial because it puts specific stress on critical areas such as the hips and lower back, Saltonstall said. Good alignment is also emphasized, which is crucial. But not all types of yoga are safe for those who already have osteoporosis.

"Harmful positions are the forward bend, when the spine rounds forward," she said. "That's dangerous for people with osteoporosis because fractures tend to occur, so you want to avoid that if you know you have it."

Osteoporosis is a common bone disease that is estimated to affect one out of five American women over the age of 50.

Gusti Ratliff, a yoga therapist in Dallas, was diagnosed with osteoporosis five years ago. She said the type of yoga she was practicing was actually hurting her back.

"I developed osteoporosis and I was fracturing my back doing yoga," Ratliff said. "The type of yoga I was doing was a flowing yoga and it was working against me."

Flowing yoga consists of many forward-bending positions. Ratliff switched to a weight-bearing yoga, which incorporates more standing positions.

After two years of practicing weight-bearing yoga, along with increasing her calcium intake, Ratliff's bone density improved and her osteoporosis was downgraded to osteopenia.

Saltonstall agrees that in order for yoga to treat osteoporosis, it must be a vigorous yoga that uses muscles.

"Relaxing yoga won't change the bones," she said. "For example, Anusara yoga is excellent because it invigorates muscle strength."

In addition to seeing bone density scores improve, Saltonstall said she has seen clients become stronger and more confident. When looking for the right kind of yoga class, Saltonstall says students should look for a good teacher who has experience working with different levels of fitness, age and experience.

"I recommend talking to the teacher. Tell them, 'I have osteoporosis and I can't bend forward,'" Saltonstall said.

Many of these recommendations also apply when considering Pilates for the treatment of osteoporosis, said Rebekah Rotstein, a certified Pilates instructor and creator of the Pilates for Buff Bones workout.

Though there is little research on how much Pilates can actually prevent or treat osteoporosis, it can definitely prevent excessive bone loss, said Rotstein, who became even more interested in the topic when she was diagnosed with osteoporosis at age 28.

"If a class is modified for people with osteoporosis, one of the things it should do is emphasize stability through the spine and through the shoulders-working the back as well as working through standing and weight bearing," Rotstein said.

Working the back works the muscles that pull against the bone, which ultimately strengthens the bone, she said.

But, like yoga, it is important to avoid any positions that involve bending forward to avoid the risk of a fracture. Finding a Pilates class modified to be safe for those with osteoporosis might be challenging.

Aside from the classes she teaches and those by instructors she certifies, Rotstein said she doesn't know of any Pilates classes in New York City that are designed specifically for those with osteoporosis.

When considering a regular Pilates class, Rotstein recommends asking the instructor if they've had osteoporosis training and if they're familiar with exercises they should modify or avoid.

Rotstein said she has witnessed many success stories where clients conditions have improved.

"Most everybody I've worked with, there's always some kind of improvement-not just the score of their bone density but also their overall strength and their overall emotional state," she said.

One of the most critical things Pilates does is emphasize proper alignment and good posture, which is great for everyone but especially those looking to prevent or treat osteoporosis, Rotstein said.

While Pilates can help improve bone density, other treatments should not be avoided. Rotstein said it is important for patients to follow their doctor's orders and practice other exercises as a complement to the Pilates workout.

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