The Ache: Weight-bearing exercise can help make bones stronger and stave off the effects of osteoporosis. But walking—popular because of its gentleness on the joints—isn’t as good at building bone mass as higher-impact activities, such as running.
The Claim: Wearing a weighted vest can boost the amount of bone mass built while walking. Running or jumping with a vest may provide even more benefit.
The Verdict: Several small studies have shown exercise with a weighted vest increases bone-mineral density in older women and improves balance. The evidence isn’t conclusive, says Felicia Cosman, senior clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, but it’s logical to think the vests would be beneficial because “bone responds to the magnitude of the force put on it.”
One in two women and about one in four men over age 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, according to the foundation. Men’s risk for osteoporosis increases after age 70 and weighted vests will likely be of benefit, doctors say.
Weighted vests, used for decades for injury rehabilitation and training for firefighters and police, have become popular in recent years as a tool in preventing osteoporosis. The vests typically have slots for half-pound removable weights. Some models, such as the All Pro Power Vest, from All Pro Exercise Products Inc., Hillsborough, N.J., are unisex. Others, such as the $149 model from Healthy Over 50 Inc. of Carpinteria, Calif., are tailored to fit women. The All Pro vest is $85 for a 20-pound version and $120 for one that holds up to 40 pounds.
Since the weighted vest is snug to the body, it is more likely to put beneficial stress on the spine and hips than carrying dumbbells, says physical therapist Carol Hamilton Zehnacker, owner of Physical Therapy Consults of Frederick, Md. Wearing the vests while jogging, jumping on a trampoline or climbing stairs is likely to provide more benefit, doctors and physical therapists say.
A six-week study of 36 postmenopausal women, published this year in the journal Rheumatology International, found walking on a treadmill three times a week wearing a weighted vest improved balance, compared with a control group who walked without a vest.
In clinical studies, benefits have been found with vests containing weights equal to 4% to 10% of body weight. If a person is significantly overweight, a weight vest probably isn’t necessary because the excess pounds already give bones a workout, doctors say.
A four-year study of 167 postmenopausal women found bone density was improved by an exercise program that included weight training and stair climbing with a weighted vest. But since the activities were studied together, we can’t tell “that the weighted vest made the difference,” says Tim Lohman, co-author of the study, published in 2005. Weightlifting is one of the best activities for osteoporosis, says Dr. Lohman, professor emeritus, University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. It’s most important people chose an activity they’ll stick with since muscle builds slowly over years, he adds.
The vest should fit snugly. If it is too loose, it could throw a person’s balance off and cause injuries, says Karen Kemmis, a physical therapist at State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Petite women may find a better fit with a women’s model rather than a unisex one, she adds.Wearing a weight vest may cause a flare-up of pre-existing back or knee injuries, physical therapists say. Build up the weight gradually—and if you feel soreness in your joints, stop using it for a few days, Dr. Kemmis says.