Thirty-five minutes into a 60-minute workout, my boxing instructor yells, “Float like a butterfly!” And if I have any air in my lungs or moisture left in my mouth, I might respond, “Sting like a bee!” I certainly don’t exercise because I like it, I want my body and heart to be strong (and it helps justify a pretty intense ice-cream habit). And I certainly never heard of osteogenesis. Unfortunately, working out once a week for only a year or two isn’t going to give me the perfect dairy-eating bod I dream of for the rest of my life.
Such is life, especially in regards to most health-promoting activities. There is no diet pill, detox cleanse, or fad exercise that will guarantee I stay skinny for life. However, John Jaquish, PhD, will be the first to tell you that not all health-promoting therapies require multiple hours per week, or extensive years of commitment. He is also not particularly concerned about my dietary habits at all; rather, he has a singular place in his heart for mediating the degenerative symptoms of osteoporosis, using a process called osteogenesis.
The Mother of Invention
His quest to boost bone health started 10 years ago when Dr. Jaquish answered a dramatic phone call from his mother, Anne-Marie. She explained to him that she was positively going to crumble to dust because of her newly minted diagnosis of osteoporosis. At the time, Dr. Jaquish had little knowledge of bones or degenerative diseases, but he did have a degree in biomedical engineering to help him figure out a way to calm his mom down and build her bones back up.
Because bones are constantly undergoing a process of resorption and formation as we age, there is ample opportunity for this process to develop a bug. There are two fundamental cells in the bone remodeling game: osteoclasts that degrade the bone, and osteoblasts that develop new bone growth. Osteoporosis occurs when bones don’t develop an adequate peak bone mass, or when osteoclasts are outworking osteoblasts. After age 30, osteoblasts never get any stronger, so bones get weaker. Thus far, only imperfect therapies exist to slow down the deconditioning effects of hardworking osteoclasts.
This is where T-score measurements come in handy. When diagnosing osteoporosis, patients get a scan of their Bone Mass Density (BMD). At their peak, without any outside influence, a 30-year-old will have a T-score of 0, indicating their bone density is no less than (negative numbers) or greater than (positive numbers) their peak-health peers. Now, let’s say a 55-year-old woman gets her BMD measured, and comes back with a T-score of -2.5?far from the ideal of zero. In fact, a T-score less than -2.5 indicates the patient has osteoporosis.
Bone, Heal Thyself
He was scouring published research, looking for groups of people that had high BMD well into old age, when he found a surprising pattern; gymnasts frequently had high BMD when compared with their non-gymnast peers. The pattern wasn’t limited to gymnasts either, any athlete that absorbed very high impact force had higher bone density according to Dr. Jaquish.
After stumbling upon this clue, Dr. Jaquish redoubled his efforts, asking himself, What’s so special about impact? He discovered osteogenesis can be jolted into action by bearing down on the bone. But the real “specialness,” as he calls it, happens when people absorb a certain level of force. “When people drop from a surface that’s 15 inches high, (not to be confused with jumping 15 inches in the air), they’re absorbing at least 4.2 multiples of their body weight,” Dr. Jaquish explains. Just enough weight, he says, to prompt osteoblasts to rush to the area and start assembling more bone, shoring it up against similar impacts to come. Like sweating when the body is hot, or pupils contracting when it is dark outside, the building up of bone after little traumas is a natural bodily response to the right stimuli in this case, high impact, or compression.
Instead of instructing his mother to jump off 15-inch platforms, Dr. Jaquish designed a machine with all the regenerative benefits of impact without the risks associated with those situations like falls or load-bearing exercises. The machine is unique in that it takes pressure off the spine, so there’s no risk of compression in the vertebrae. Additionally, there is constant biofeedback, allowing the user to send the machine signals of their highest threshold, instead of the machine arbitrarily putting a weight on the user like in resistance training. This “self-loading” mechanism, Dr. Jaquish says, “ensures there’s never a risk of getting an impact that the user cannot handle.”
To say the outcomes of testing the osteogenesis machine have been encouraging would be a bit of an understatement. After using the machine just 5 to 10 minutes a day, once a week, for 18 months, Anne-Marie’s T-score weighed in at a whopping, incredible goose egg. Her T-score of 0 meant that, at over 80 years old, she enjoys the BMD of a healthy 30-year-old. Her theatrical phone call announcing her osteoporosis is now just a moot memory. Even if she chose to stop the osteogenesis therapy, her bones would only decondition at the rate of a woman 50 years her junior.
In a world devoid of magic bullets for diet and exercise, or cures for illness like cancer, there now exists a silver lining when it comes to bone health. It’s finally possible to fight against decreasing BMD and its associated risks of falls and fracture. Anne-Marie might be the first person to benefit from Dr. Jaquish?s osteogenesis research and designs, but no bones about it; she will not be the last.
A common misconception about vitamins is that if you are taking them, they are working exactly where you need them in your body. Consequently, many think that as long as they are taking supplemental calcium, their bones are being perfectly maintained, but that’s not true. Just taking calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium isn’t going to strengthen bones without a catalyst. If you sit at a desk all day, your osteoblasts don’t have any reason to consume those minerals and use them for bone growth.
Which is not to say supplementation is useless. When studies are published that report calcium and vitamin D don’t do anything, that’s not correct. Calcium and vitamin D don’t do anything the way people are using them. They’re taking them without giving the body a reason to utilize them.
You would think exercise would be a great way to stress bones enough to take advantage of supplemental calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium, right? Well, there’s a reason Dr. Jaquish didn’t have his mom pumping iron every day; weight training or resistance training doesn’t give the bones adequate impact. You need relevant loading to regrow bone, so if you’re not absorbing 4.2 multiples of the body weight, you’re not triggering bone growth. Although jump squats might help with balance, they aren’t going to change bone mass. And that makes sense; if exercise was a legitimate fix for osteoporosis, the incidence rate of the disease would be steadily decreasing, and it is not.
That being said, a key component of skeletal health is muscle strength. While strong bones go a long way, quality of life is best impacted when the muscle surrounding the bone is also resilient to impact and other activities. Traditional exercise like lifting weights causes tearing and other damage to your muscles, which makes them swell and feel sore for days afterward. Osteogenesis, on the other hand, spurs the body to create new muscle fibers in addition to bone mass. The key difference, again, lies in using impact. Instead of harming and healing existing muscles, high impact loading blasts the building blocks of muscle, called myofibrils, and they create entirely new muscle tissue; good news for osteoporosis sufferers and athletes alike.
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