Pump it up! Resistance training is key to combatting osteoporosis

Saskatchewan researchers excited about the bone-building power combo of resistance training and creatine

March 10, 2016

Pumping iron is not usually an image associated with senior citizens, but if Saskatchewan-based researchers, Drs. Darren Candow and Phil Chilibeck, have their way, it soon will be.

These CIHR-funded researchers are enthusiastic about the results of their studies showing that weight training, combined with creatine supplement intake, is a great way to combat osteoporosis – especially for post-menopausal women and seniors. 

Dr. Darren Candow, a professor and associate dean of Graduate Studies and Research with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina, along with his co-investigator, Dr. Phil Chilibeck, professor at University of Saskatchewan's College of Kinesiology, explore how to counteract bone loss attributed to the aging process.

"CIHR funding has allowed us to run 'randomized controlled trials', which are the highest-quality trials for determining the benefits of treatments such as exercise or nutritional supplements on bone health. These types of trials require good funding and they produce the highest-quality evidence regarding which exercise or nutritional interventions are of benefit."

Dr. Phil Chilibeck

Dr. Phil Chilibeck
University of Saskatchewan

Reproduced with the permission of Dr. Phil Chilibeck.

Dr. Darren Candow
University of Regina

Reproduced with the permission of Dr. Darren Candow.

Creatine monohydrate is used by the body to resynthesize adenosine triphosphate during intense activity.  High-performance athletes and body builders alike have been taking the nutritional supplement for years. It increases the "immediate" energy stores in our muscles required for short, high-intensity bursts of activity. Its ability to increase muscle mass, strength and power is well known.

What remains a mystery is how creatine monohydrate benefits other tissue, like bone.

Drs. Candow and Chilibeck think that it may get into our bone cells, increasing their level of activity and building their energy stores. This, in theory, would also help to build bone. When taken during resistance training, it allows one to work harder and put on more muscle mass. If a person increases muscle mass and strength, they can exert more force on bones, because muscles are attached to bones. The greater amount of loading we expose our bones to, the more we can stimulate bone formation to make our bones stronger.

The skinny on being strong

A leading cause of disability in Canada's aging population, osteoporosis is a progressive bone disease characterized by the loss of bone mass and density. It can increase the risk of fracture and, as a result, leave people prone to injuries if they fall. Injuries can be so severe that an individual can lose their autonomy.

The overall yearly cost to the Canadian health care system of treating osteoporosis and the fractures it causes was over $2.3 billion in 2010. This cost includes acute care costs, outpatient care, prescription drugs and indirect costs. This cost rises to $3.9 billion if a proportion of Canadians were assumed to be living in long-term care facilities because of osteoporosis. (The burden of illness of osteoporosis in Canada, Tarride et al, Osteoporosis International March 2012)

Both Dr. Candow and Dr. Chilibeck are united in their belief that improving muscle and bone health will be very beneficial for seniors, increasing their ability to perform daily activities and enjoy a better quality of life, while reducing the costs to the health care system.

It is hoped that the results of their research into creatine will offer post-menopausal women and seniors another option, in addition to exercise and pharmaceuticals, in their fight against bone and muscle loss.

Back to basics

Attracted to the basic sciences like biology, chemistry and physics, Dr. Phil Chilibeck was also drawn to sport, exercise and physical activity. Kinesiology, the study of movement, was the perfect fit and has become his passion, along with a genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of others.

Motivated to uncover how exercise and nutrition can improve bone health after witnessing close family members battle bone and joint problems, he joined forces with Dr. Darren Candow, another researcher who shares his fascination with how the body responds and adapts to basic nutrition and exercise.

Dr. Candow became hooked on exercise physiology after taking an introductory class in university, the catalyst for his career path. Since then, he has been investigating novel ways to safeguard the body's musculoskeletal system and to uncover new ways for Canada's population to age in good health.

Together, they have been promoting their specific resistance training exercises at every opportunity, including conferences, presentations, and research forums.

Through their observations during several studies, they are determining which exercises work best. For example, standing squat exercises and seated leg press both are effective for increasing muscle mass of the legs, but standing squat is better for increasing bone mineral density at the hip, most likely due to the more direct loading of the hip when performing resistance training from a standing position rather than a seated position.

Convinced of the value of resistance training for preventing loss of muscle and bone with age, they continue to explore how to calibrate exercise and supplementation to achieve maximum results. For instance, what is the optimal (and safest) resistance training program for older people? The answer to this and other questions will fuel future investigations. 

In the meantime, both Dr. Candow and Chilibeck are encouraging Canadians to "Stay Strong and Live Long."

"Regarding muscle and bone health, I hear so many people say 'I'm too old to do that' or 'I can’t do the things like I used to.' I'm very interested in preserving the precious muscle and bone tissue that we have so we can live independently as we age."

Dr. Darren Candow

"Conditions such as osteoporosis and loss of muscle mass dramatically affect quality of life and muscle and bone health can determine whether the last 10-15 years of someone's life is spent in institutional care or is spent living independently and actively. This will be very important in the next years as the baby boomer generation becomes senior citizens."

Dr. Phil Chilibeck

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