High-Impact Sports Build Bone Strength, Even Past Age 80

You can’t turn back the clock, but according to some very interesting new research, you can—and perhaps should—act as young as you feel when you play sports. The conventional wisdom has been that older folks should avoid high-impact sports like running due to the risk for fracture or other debilitating injury. But it turns out to be okay even for older seniors to enjoy such sports—in fact, research demonstrates that in the process, those who do build up their bone mineral density, end up with stronger bones that are less likely to break.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center used ultrasound scans to examine the bones of 560 male and female athletes, ages 50 to 93, who were in town to participate in the 2005 National Senior Games. Scans revealed that the athletes competing in high-impact sports had substantially higher bone mineral density than those who were there for low-impact events such as swimming and shuffleboard.


I asked Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and the study’s lead researcher, whether these findings can be put to use by the rest of us. Indeed they can, she said, adding, “We want you to pound your bones!” Though conventional wisdom says older folks should accept that they can’t do all that they used to do, she said that it’s fine—even smart—to participate in the types of activities, including track-and-field and sports like volleyball, squash and basketball, where you bang your hands and feet fast and hard against balls or the ground. Jogging, running and jumping rope fit into this category, while walking or playing golf (even though the ball gets hit with some force) do not, because they involve a softer surface and/or a more leisurely pace.

Dr. Wright agreed that low-impact sports—such as swimming or pedaling a stationary bicycle—are beneficial for building strong muscles and a healthy cardiovascular system, but she noted that high-impact sports confer these same benefits and the advantage of increasing bone density.


The “why” behind this is interesting: Our bones are made of organic and inorganic matter—the latter is crystalline, so it literally sparks upon compression. Decades-old research has established that hard, quick impact creates a type of electrical current (called piezoelectric) that helps preserve bone density and—you may find this surprising—actually speeds the healing of fractures.

Dr. Wright offered this advice to people who want to maintain strong bones:

  • Don’t be shy about giving high-impact exercise a try…but do check with your doctor first, especially if you already know that you have low bone density. Those who can’t or don’t want to do high-impact exercise should still engage in brisk walking, which is also of benefit.
  • Don’t be daunted if it hurts a bit (though be aware that severe pain is—as always—to be paid attention to). Generally speaking, it’s okay to work through an ache such as the burned-out feeling of muscle you’ve worked hard… but if you experience sharp or acute pain, it’s better to stop. Dr. Wright said that enduring a bit of soreness is a “relatively small price to pay for avoiding a fractured bone in the future.”
  • Don’t be a hero—start slow and easy and assess how your body is taking to your new regimen. A good way to get started is with short bursts of activity—a day on and a day off.

Don’t let age deter you from participating in high-impact sports even if your performance isn’t as good as you’d wish. As Dr. Wright said, “Even at age 85, there’s no evidence that our bodies are not capable of jogging—even if at that age it might look more like shuffling!”