Preventing and treating osteoporosis with physical therapy and exercise


Brianna Johnson, DPT
Brianna Johnson, DPT

Osteoporosis occurs when your body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. The disease is often described as silent because your bones may weaken over time without causing outward symptoms until a fracture occurs. 

Fractured bones, particularly hips, can be life-threatening health issues. That makes it important to know your risk for developing osteoporosis and taking measures to prevent the condition. There are several effective therapies including medications, vitamin and mineral supplements, and bone building exercises for treating and preventing osteoporosis. It’s important to consult your doctor to determine the appropriate treatment options for you. Conservative, non-drug treatments such as physical therapy and exercise can also benefit your overall fitness, health, and well-being.

Who is at risk? 

Osteoporosis is a national health crisis, affecting both men and women. It is a “silent” disease, impacting 54 million Americans. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention, osteoporosis affects 25 percent of women and 5 percent of men over the age of 65. According to the Cleveland Clinic, studies have shown that one in two women and one in four men will sustain an osteoporosis-related fracture after the age of 50. Although Caucasian and Asian women are more susceptible to the disease, men and women of all backgrounds are at risk. 

What causes osteoporosis? 

There are many contributing factors including age, medications, genetics (family history), hormonal changes, and various health conditions, that can cause or increase a patient’s likelihood of developing osteoporosis. Some lifestyle choices that increase the risk of developing osteoporosis including smoking, excessive intake of alcohol or caffeine, lack of exercise, and a calcium-deficient diet. If you are concerned about developing osteoporosis or believe that you are at risk, consult your primary care physician. 

How is osteoporosis diagnosed?

The gold standard method of diagnosing an individual with osteoporosis is by performing a Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) Scan. This test looks at how healthy or solid the bones are at the spine, wrist, and hips. While there are often no signs of bones becoming weak, there are symptoms that may indicate osteoporosis: change in posture, loss of height, bone fracture, and low back pain, to name a few. 

What is the role of physical therapy in treating osteoporosis?

Your physical therapist can develop a specific program based on your individual needs to help improve your overall bone health, keep your bones healthy, and help you avoid fractures. Your physical therapist may teach you:

  • Specific exercises to build bone or decrease the amount of bone loss.
  • Proper posture to protect your spine from fracture.
  • Proper alignment during activities of daily living.
  • How to improve your balance to reduce your risk of falling.
  • How to adjust your environment to protect your bone health.

Cayuga Medical Center’s physical therapists practice at Cayuga Wellness Center, Brentwood Drive in the East Campus, Cortland Convenient Care Center, Schuyler Hospital, and partner with Ithaca Health & Fitness trainers as appropriate for a patient’s progress.

How does exercise play a role in osteoporosis?

Exercise can aid in preventing or slowing down the process of developing osteoporosis. Exercises that include weight-bearing or resistance are important to building healthy bones. To optimize bone health, these types of exercises should start from early childhood. However, it is never too late to start a bone building exercise regime. 

What does a bone building exercise program involve?

Regular exercise strengthens bones. Putting stress on weight-bearing bones with exercises such as running, jumping, and vigorous hiking are bone building. Weightlifting with equipment or free weights can strengthen bones. Your physical therapist will show you how to do these exercises during once or twice weekly sessions for about six weeks. A goal of the therapy is to transition a patient to a community-based exercise program or fitness classes in a gym.

What should you do if you have limitations to your ability to exercise?

Patients with physical limitations or multiple health problems may be unable to do vigorous exercises. Physical therapists at Cayuga Wellness are trained in developing exercise programs for patients with special needs so they can gain strength and functionality. New osteoporosis patients often need to learn how to improve balance, strength, and body mechanics before beginning a more challenging exercise program.

Cayuga Wellness Center therapists work with exercise trainers at Island Health and Fitness Center so patients can make a seamless transition from therapy to an appropriately challenging group or individual exercise program.


Brianna Johnston is a physical therapist at Cayuga Medical Center Outpatient Physical Therapy. She graduated from Ithaca College with her Doctorate of Physical Therapy and has been practicing since December 2021. She can be reached at (607) 274-4159 at the Brentwood location on East Campus.