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  • Sharnie Kim and Samuel Davis

Cairns septuagenarian with osteoporosis does heavy lifting to improve bone density

Helen Donnellan started weightlifting after being diagnosed with osteoporosis.

A 71-year-old Cairns woman who took up powerlifting after being diagnosed with osteoporosis is deadlifting the equivalent of the national record for her age after two months' training and hopes to encourage other older people to give the sport a go. Helen Donnellan started lifting weights at a local gym after a scan in June revealed she had low bone density. Ms Donnellan was otherwise healthy and active, having practised yoga for the past five years, but was initially apprehensive about weightlifting. But she decided to try something new to improve her health without having to start taking osteoporosis medication. "I wanted to try this because I didn't think I had many options," she said. "I think I'm probably the oldest person in the gym most days, but I'm not treated like an old person. I'm just treated like somebody who's come to lift some weights and have some fun. "I feel welcome here and supported and I'm enjoying it, just testing myself." Coach Elias Wright said Ms Donnellan had made stunning progress, recently completing three sets of three 60-kilogram deadlifts, which is the national standard record for her age group. "It was kind of cool because everyone in the gym stopped and had a bit of a watch and gave her a bit of a clap at the end," he said. "She got quite emotional. It was really cool to see." He said loss of muscle and bone density as people aged were major contributors to falls and broken bones. "Generally once that starts it's a downward spiral, so if we can improve both muscle mass and bone density in one activity I think it's just a great thing and resistance training does that," Mr Wright said. Ms Donnellan said her focus was on enjoying herself and taking care of her body, not breaking records. "I didn't know anything about weights and age categories or anything like that. I just followed the program that Elias drew up," she said. "I must say every day I told him that I wouldn't be able to do that and he would reassure me that I could, and of course I did. "The encouragement I've had from Elias and other people here at the gym — they've just been very supportive and helped me when I've had senior moments."

'You can lift heavy if you have osteoporosis' Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become brittle and more susceptible to breaking due to loss of minerals such as calcium. An estimated 1.2 million Australians have the disease while a further 6.3 million have low bone density. Griffith University Professor of Exercise Science, Belinda Beck, who advises Osteoporosis Australia, said treatment used to be centred on medication, nutrition, and preventing falls. But she said research had shown lifting heavy weights was a "powerful tool" in increasing bone density. "Probably in the past five years, maybe a little less, people have started to realise that you can lift heavy if you have osteoporosis or low bone mass," she said. "You can do it safely as long as you're well supervised and if you do lift heavy then you're much more likely to gain bone than if you just do regular garden-variety exercise." Professor Beck co-authored the LIFTMOR studies, which put groups of older men and women with low bone density — about half of them with diagnosed osteoporosis — through eight months of supervised high-intensity resistance and weight training. She said none of the participants suffered fractures and they had noticeable improvements in bone density. "Some people were gaining as much as 15 per cent. The average though was about 4 per cent," she said.

Can weight training replace medication?

Professor Beck said weight training also improved muscle strength, balance, and coordination but recommended people with bone density issues to be trained under the supervision of a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist. She believed heavy lifting could replace medication for some people with the condition. "We've certainly got evidence at the clinic that people who have chosen not to go on medications but have started lifting have changed their bone mineral density score from osteoporotic to the normal range," she said. "But that's not everybody. There are some people who have very, very low bone mass and they really need to go on medication as well as exercise."

Benefits 'between the ears' Helen Donnellan is yet to have a follow-up scan to see if her bone density has improved from weight training. But she said she was already noticing benefits "between the ears". "I think like any activity if you're enjoying it you get a good feeling," she said. "It's just the challenge and being able to meet that challenge. "I'd really like to encourage other women to give it a go. "Some days there are more women here than there are men and that's fantastic, and they're much stronger than I am and it's just great to see." Article from ABC Far North

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