How menopause affects your bone health and what you can do about it

MedlinePlus defines menopause as the time in a woman's life when her period stops.

Maintaining a healthy weight, having a balanced diet and exercising regularly are generally good habits to build, regardless of age. However, it is vital for premenopausal and menopausal women to also pay attention to additional health factors as estrogen levels drop.

As women age, this hormonal change happens naturally but can cause some unfavorable side effects, with bone loss being one of the biggest.

Decrease in bone mass

Osteoporosis, a decrease in bone mass, affects both men and women, but as women age, they are at greater risk because of the loss of estrogen in their bodies. According to a 2022 study published in The Journal of Molecular Sciences, “Low levels of circulating estrogen are associated with the risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis.”

“The majority of postmenopausal women with osteoporosis have bone loss related to estrogen deficiency.” Researchers have found “the rapid bone loss results from an increase in bone turnover with an imbalance between bone resorption and bone formation.”

What can we do to help stave off osteoporosis? Maintaining a healthy weight and taking vitamin supplements aren’t the only keys to helping your current and future health. Strength training, which can increase bone density, is also essential and can prove beneficial in the long run. It’s never too late to add weight-bearing exercises to your lifestyle.

Check with your doctor first

When starting something new or adjusting an activity to better support bone health, it’s always a good practice to check with your medical provider first. They will be able to help you choose the best options for you and your bone health.

For example, weighted vests have become a new trend for avid walkers. This simple addition to your routine can combine an aerobic walk with anaerobic strength training. Research has shown you should aim for 4% to 10% of your body weight if you try it out. If you are around 140 pounds, starting with a 5-15 pound vest would be optimal.

A common mistake people make when adding something to their workout is starting with a bang and then getting discouraged. Don’t let that be you. Just remember, a little goes a long way. Consider your level of fitness, plan to start small, and consider whether you are already struggling with aching joints in your hips and knees.

Weighted vests to build bone mass

As is common with women’s health, especially as we age, there is little research on the benefits of the weighted vest; however, the National Library of Medicine’s findings support the use of progressive exercise training using weighted vests in postmenopausal women.

Dr. Peter Young, division chief of musculoskeletal radiology at University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio, offered some insight about weighted vests. “Bone mineral density loss is part of normal aging for both men and women, but adding weight-bearing exercises can help build bone mass and increase axial loading on the bone, which helps to increase bone mineral density,” he said. “Increasing BMD, or bone mineral density, would give a premenopausal woman a better starting point by developing bone mineral density during her premenopausal years.”

According to Young: “The literature on weighted vests is limited, though there have been a few key studies, and the results are promising. So far, the literature primarily focused on using weighted vests and exercise programs for postmenopausal females. Studies have shown that exercise programs consistently help increase bone mineral density in postmenopausal females long-term, thus decreasing the risk of future fractures and osteoporosis.”

Resistance training

Weight exercises force bones to work harder. Resistance training is typically thought of as using bands, dumbbells, or even your body weight with pushups and pullups. Adding a weighted vest is also resistance training, but it is spread over your back and shoulders to make you work harder while you walk.

Anna Mavromichalis, a not-just-yet-50-year-old woman who has done yoga for years, does weights, and walks on average 10- 15 miles per week, recently added a weighted vest to her routine.

“I like walking with a weighted vest as it gives my body the same feedback as cross-training. I definitely recommended starting with a light vest and build-up,” she said.

Mavromichalis said she does not wear the vest with every walk, because it tends to put pressure on her knees, but she has seen benefits.

This story has been updated to correct information about a 2022 study on postmenopausal osteoporosis.