Does Yoga Strengthen Your Bones? An Orthopedic Surgeon’s Answer Might Surprise You
Many weight-bearing workouts have been demonstrated as excellent for long-term bone health. So can yoga poses, like warrior and crow, build stronger bones? It's possible, but you need to know this.
Is yoga good for bone strength?
It was 2016 when the Yoga Alliance—a national non-profit advocating for the regulation and standardization of yoga education throughout the U.S.—published findings from their headline-making survey based on which they estimated that nearly 40 million Americans practiced yoga. Remarkably, that figure had nearly doubled since 2012. And, all these findings were reported several years before the pandemic: a period when millions more of us began to seek both mindfulness practices to ease stress, and exercise routines that required nothing more than a little floorspace at home.
So it’s arguable that today, yoga is more popular than ever. (Seriously, everyone needs to experience a good yoga pose for lower back pain at least once in their lives.) With yoga’s many benefits that may help optimize wellness and longevity—like lowering blood pressure, increasing optimism, promoting flexibility and mobility, improving joint health, and even aiding processes like weight loss and digestion—does yoga show any promise for doing your bones good? We looked at the current science and spoke with Dr. Daniel Fulham O’Neill, MD, EdD, orthopedic surgeon and author of Survival of the Fit. Here’s where we landed.
Want to establish a regular practice but need some inspiration to focus? Read Create the Ultimate Meditation Space: Mindfulness Experts Share 4 Easy Ideas
The current word on yoga for bone strength
Weight-bearing workouts, especially certain resistance exercises, have been found to strengthen bones. (Learn more in The 4 Best Exercises to Strengthen Bones in Your Upper Body, From an Exercise Physiologist.) Yoga poses such as chair pose, warrior, and definitely crow pose call you to bear substantial bodyweight. But does that help build healthy bone?
Maybe not on their own. In a 2021 meta-analysis published in the peer-reviewed PLOS One, researchers reviewed eleven studies examining the effects of yoga on bone mineral density (BMD) among adult women, including 591 participants aged between 45 and 78. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that yoga “did not significantly improve BMD among adult women.”
As Dr. O’Neill tells The Healthy, “Yoga and flexibility are brilliant for strengthening your joints and muscles, but not your bones.” By no means is this meant to discourage you from doing yoga. On the contrary, yoga helps protect your bones and reduce your risk of falls and fractures by improving your skeletal frame and muscle strength. “As we age, our tissues lose water and elasticity,” Dr. O’Neill says. “Yoga can help mitigate this loss. When joints move better, everything about our human-machine works more smoothly.”
Also, a 2021 study published in Orthopaedic Nursing found that yoga may provide better balance, improved posture, a greater range of motion, and increased stability and coordination.
So how can yoga improve bone health?
Although yoga might not boost bone health on its own, it can help increase bone mineral density when you combine it with resistance training. Resistance training adds more stress to your bones, which improves bone health by increasing bone density. “Yoga alone doesn’t deliver enough resistance to stimulate significant bone formation,” Dr. O’Neill says, but adds: “Show the bones stress, and they will strengthen.”
To that end, he recommends adding light dumbbells (we love these adjustable dumbbells) or a resistance band to your yoga routine to increase the load on your bones. The PLOS One researchers also found that adding resistance directly to your yoga practice can improve balance and strength, especially in postmenopausal women. Find the wrist weights we’re liking in The Best Gear for Working Out in Small Spaces—From a Personal Trainer
Yoga is considered a “soft” form of exercise, meaning it doesn’t strain or heavily impact the joints and muscles. Dr. O’Neill elaborates: “Similar to water aerobics and cycling, yoga is gentler on your body’s tissues. Yoga improves flexibility and joint health, making it safer for you to engage in more aggressive resistance training exercises to build strength in your skeleton and increase bone density.”
Additionally, here’s some great news: yoga can help manage osteoporosis. It encourages muscle and bone strength, which can positively impact balance, posture, and stability—and reducing your future risk of falls might surely correlate to stronger, more capable bones down the road. Plus, staying active can help alleviate pain and reduce your risk of bone fractures…and, you can use your yoga practice to develop awareness to be more mindful of your movements.
Does yoga prevent bone loss?
As our bodies age, we naturally lose bone strength and bone density. In extreme cases, this can lead to brittle bones or osteoporosis, usually from a lack of calcium. Fortunately, yoga can help prevent bone loss as we age. A 2016 study demonstrated that practicing yoga for just 12 minutes a day can be a safe and effective way to reverse bone loss. The researchers selected 12 yoga poses for their ability to boost the bone mineral density of the spine, hips, and femur. While these results are promising, the study concluded that further research is required to determine yoga’s impact on bone loss.
Another 2016 study revealed that yoga positively impacts bone mineral density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. Participants reported no pain or discomfort during the six-month study, indicating that yoga is a safe way to increase bone mineral density.
Yoga helps prevent bone loss in other ways you may not expect. Dr. O’Neill says, “Being healthy in general helps with bone loss. If you feel healthy, you’re more likely to be active. Exercise, along with vitamin D and calcium, guards against bone loss. Yoga provides not only a key component of health (flexibility), but a strong psychological component of relaxation and socialization.”
Which type of yoga makes you stronger?
Dr. O’Neill suggests you shouldn’t rely completely on yoga as the only aspect of your fitness routine to build strength, as yoga isn’t designed to build strength on the same level as weightlifting or other forms of resistance training. Yoga’s physical benefits occur mainly in improving and correcting imbalances in body alignment. As Dr. O’Neill explains, “Yoga makes you aware of your physical misalignments. Proper alignment (good posture) is a significant component of smooth motion and building strength.”
“Yoga’s benefits regarding flexibility and mental health are more important than its strength benefits,” says Dr. O’Neill. His recommendation? “Get a good strength workout, and come to yoga for the flexibility, adaptation, and cool-down it provides.” His final note? “Don’t skimp on the Shavasana, as this is an important part of the process.”
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