Stay Strong: Bone Health and Breastfeeding

 

Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author

A new mom’s job is completely overwhelming

And researchers are finding another task to add to a busy mom’s list: exercise. While it might seem impossible to squeeze in one more thing amid bringing home baby and juggling life in general, cardio and strength training are musts for breastfeeding moms to maintain bone health and help prevent osteoporosis (when bones become fragile and more likely to break) later in life.

The reason: Breastfeeding moms experience significant bone loss when their body’s calcium stores are transferred to breast milk. When moms stop breastfeeding, bone density for most women returns to normal levels – but not for all women.

Since weight-bearing exercise slows bone loss during menopause, Dr. Cheryl Lovelady, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, figured that bone loss could also be slowed with exercise during breastfeeding, giving moms a greater chance of avoiding osteoporosis later in life.

Lovelady’s study involved 20 breastfeeding women who’d been sedentary for three months before giving birth. Four weeks post-partum, the women were divided into two groups. The first group didn’t exercise. The second group started a walking and home strength training program, beginning with five minutes of brisk walking three times a week, working up to 45 minutes each time. They also strength trained three times a week, with handheld weights and large exercise (Swiss) balls.

Each group ate whatever they wanted and were given vitamins without calcium. Bone mineral density was measured in both groups.

At the end of 16 weeks, bone mineral density was measured again. “The control group had lost about 7 percent of bone mineral density while the exercise group lost just 4.8 percent,” explains Lovelady. “That doesn’t sound like a lot but if you went in during menopause and a doctor saw a 2.2 percent loss (the difference between the two groups), he’d be concerned and put you on calcium and vitamin D.”

Researchers have already found that childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood are critical times for women to build bone density to prevent osteoporosis. Now Lovelady and her team are thinking that breastfeeding is another crucial time to strengthen bones to prevent osteoporosis later. (Men suffer bone loss too as they age, but since they have denser bones to start with, and don’t have periods such as breastfeeding and menopause when women experience greater bone loss, they have lower rates of osteoporosis.)

The moms who exercised and strength trained reaped other benefits, too: They had more energy than the non-exercisers, lowered their body fat percentage and increased lean muscle mass. They also enjoyed having “alone time,” which gave them a mental break from the stress of juggling family, baby, job, and other responsibilities.

Five steps to bone health from the National Osteoporosis Foundation

  1. Eat right. Get your daily recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D
  2. Exercise. Engage in regular weight-bearing and muscle- strengthening exercise
  3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
  4. Talk to your healthcare provider. Talk to your healthcare provider about bone health
  5. Get tested. Have a bone density test and take medication when appropriate

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