High-Intensity Exercise Builds Bone in Older Men

Jim Kling

May 20, 2020

A high-intensity exercise program, already shown effective in improving bone density and performance in women, is also effective in older men with low bone density, according to the LIFTMOR-M study, published in Bone. The protocol incorporates barbell-based weightlifting and impact training involving jumping chin-ups.

"When you've got a condition primarily in one of the sexes, the other sex often gets ignored, and that's absolute the case with osteoporosis," said lead author Belinda Beck, PhD, a professor at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia, in an interview.

In older adults with low bone density, when it comes to building bone and reducing fracture, a review of the literature suggests that exercise doesn't work. That's not really true though, according to Dr. Beck. An unpublished analysis of studies of high-intensity exercise only at her institution shows promise. "It looks like exercise doesn't work. It's not that, it's that the wrong kind of exercise doesn't work," she stressed.

The original LIFTMOR trial, in women, was inspired by a collaboration with Lisa Weis, an Olympic weightlifter who specialized in training older women, who subsequently showed improvements on bone scans. "That's what jump-started it, because just like every other scientist, I would have been too scared to do this kind of loading in this fragile population, and that's the reason why people haven't been doing it. They don't want to break people," said Dr. Beck.

The investigators "cherry-picked some of those exercises and tested them in the LIFTMOR trial. I was nervous about the study because the weights we were lifting were much heavier than most people had applied for people with osteoporosis. The risk was, we would cause the fractures we were trying to prevent," said Dr. Beck. Her team tested a high-intensity resistance and impact (HiRIT) protocol in postmenopausal women with low bone mass (J Bone Miner Res. 2019;34[3]:572) Controls underwent a home-based, low-intensity exercise program. They found improvements in bone density and functional performance, compared with controls.

"The exercise was effective and safe for this population if practiced with proper technique under close supervision," said Dr. Beck, but she emphasized that the exercises must be led by experienced coaches because of the potential for injury.

The investigators then looked at men. "There are still one in five men over 50 who are going to fracture," Dr. Beck said.

Her team launched LIFTMOR-M, which enrolled 93 men (mean age, 67.1 years) with a lower than average proximal femur areal bone mineral density. Of them, 34 were randomized to HiRIT, 33 to supervised machine-based isometric axial compression (IAC) exercise training, and 26 were designated as controls and self-selected to usual activities.

The intervention included 8 months of twice-weekly, supervised, 30-minute HiRIT sessions, which included five sets of five repetitions, using more than 85% the weight of the single repetition maximum. The routine included the deadlift, squat, and overhead press. The impact component included five sets of five repetitions of jumping chin-ups followed by a firm, flat-footed landing.

After 8 months, there was no difference in compliance between the two intervention groups. Those in the HiRIT group had improved medial femoral neck cortical thickness, compared with controls (5.6% vs. –0.1%; P = .028) and IAC (5.6% vs. 0.7%; P = .044). Those in the HiRIT group maintained distal tibia trabecular area, while the control group experienced a loss (0.2% vs. –1.6%; P = .013). The IAC group did not show any improvement in bone strength in any of the sites examined, though some findings suggest it may counteract age-related loss in bone strength indices in the distal tibia and radius.

The program requires a fluid movement that maintains a neutral spine throughout. Dr. Beck has developed the Onero program (theboneclinic.com.au/onero/) based on the routine and licenses it to physical therapists and exercise physiologists.

The study was funded by the Australian Research Foundation and the Australian Government Research Training Program. Dr. Beck owns the Bone Clinic, which sells licenses to the Onero program based on the exercise program used in the study.

Bone. 2020;136:115362. Abstract

This article originally appeared on MDedge.

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