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Injuries and Medical Advice

Body: Bouldering for the Bones

I climb and am dealing with osteopenia and/or osteoporosis resulting from medication I'm taking for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Prednisone, among other drugs). My doctor recommended weight-bearing exercise. Does rock climbing or bouldering fill the bill?

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I climb and am dealing with osteopenia and/or osteoporosis resulting from medication I’m taking for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Prednisone, among other drugs). My doctor recommended weight-bearing exercise. Does rock climbing or bouldering fill the bill?

Tom Eisenstadt, Calabasas, California

Being a believer in anecdotal evidence, I tested the null hypothesis that climbing was not weight bearing by trying a beautiful highball project. Amazingly, it seemed to be more weight bearing the higher I got! And when I finally thrutched at something distant (it was possibly a cloud), screamed and dislocated my ankle it was irrefragable, I was bearing my weight.

In reality, the correlation between bone strength and types of exercise is a little like Tiger Woods’ life, full of simple relationships that are difficult to comprehend in the big picture. The bottom line? Any exercise will potentially stimulate bone strengthening, though to widely varying degrees. Weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing are really just terms coined to describe gravitational load, and shouldn’t be confused with load-bearing, which is far more descriptive when it comes to defining the effectiveness of exercises as they relate to one’s bone density.

All exercises are load-bearing in that muscles are loading bones. When muscles load bones (as does gravity), bones prick to attention, wondering, Are we strong enough for this task? If the answer is yes, there is no call to arms, nothing to worry about here. But if the answer is no, the calcium troops are rallied, and bone strength is bolstered in order to ward off potential fracture. Unfortunately, if the Bone Army is not mustered with some regular violence, calcium tends to go AWOL.

The magnitude, rate and frequency of muscular strain all play integral roles in bone response, but how they interrelate is largely unknown. One thing is certain–if swimming is at one end of the spectrum, bouldering is at the other.

Although climbers are subject to more musculoskeletal load than a fat man’s bicycle, I’m not convinced that climbing alone will thwart the de-mineralizing effect of Prednisone across your whole skeletal system. Cover your bases and have a comprehensive program to combat bone loss.

There is some more information regarding bone mineral density and climbing versus bouldering in Ask Dr J No. 170. You will find it archived on my web page, www.drjuliansaunders.com.

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