Betrayed by his bones when he fell from a step-stool and fractured vertebrae, Jim Herbage was nonetheless surprised by news that he had osteoporosis.
"You always hear that's more of a women's condition than a men's," Herbage said.
The "Better Bones and Balance" program was born at Oregon State University in 1994 as a doctorate research project that recruited 25 post-menopausal women to perform weight-bearing exercises primarily focused from their waists down.
Participants decreased their risk of falls within the year-long study. Five years later, the women who were still exercising maintained their original bone density. Non-exercisers lost an average of 4.5 percent bone-mineral density during that time period.
Over the past four years, OSU faculty have trained more than 100 people in the delivery of "Better Bones and Balance," which is regularly practiced by about 300 people in Linn and Benton counties.
"I thought 'Doggonit!' because I knew I had to be careful about falling," the Central Point resident added.
Yet Herbage took up square-dancing again and went to a local gym to use a treadmill. Diagnosed seven years ago at the age of 72, Herbage said his doctor never imparted any information on the importance of weight-bearing exercise for maintaining bone strength. He and dozens of older adults received a crash course this spring in "Better Bones and Balance" at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.
"As long as there's still connections, you can build bone mass up," Kathy Gunter, a professor of exercise physiology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, told the crowd that attended her lecture.
Healthy bones are like lattice-work pocked with holes, Gunter explained. In unhealthy bones, the supporting layers disappear, leaving behind large gaps.
Affecting nearly 8 million American women and more than 2 million men, osteoporosis is the leading cause of disability related to muscular-skeletal disorders, Gunter said. However, experts say the number of male sufferers of osteoporosis is likely vastly underestimated.
"It's kind of under-explored in men," said Dr. Dan Brandenburg, a general internist who reads bone-mineral density tests performed at Providence Medford Medical Center and refers patients to other physicians.
Of the approximately 1,500 people who underwent the test — similar to an X-ray — at Providence within the past year, fewer than 10 percent are men, Brandenburg said. However, men incur one-third of hip fractures worldwide, a number cited in the April 3 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The findings suggest that screening for osteoporosis is worthwhile in men at about age 65, he added.
"I think a lot of people who break bones, the doctors don't think of the cause as decreased bone density," Brandenburg said.
Gender, age, ethnicity and genetics all play a role in bone density, Gunter said. The extreme drop in hormones during menopause is blamed for the majority of osteoporosis cases in women. Yet low hormone levels associated with aging also put men at risk, particularly men who weather treatment for prostate cancer, Brandenburg said.
Herbage said he has never smoked or consumed unhealthy amounts of alcohol — also behaviors that can lead to osteoporosis. But he did fall out of the habit of exercising since retiring from work as an auto mechanic, and he developed heart disease that required bypass surgery. Herbage took Fosamax, a prescription medication to improve bone density, for several years, but his condition actually worsened during that time, he said.
Gunter's lecture reminded Herbage that simply lifting weights wasn't enough. He needed to increase the load and perform repetitions until he reached the point of muscle fatigue.
"Our skeletons depend very heavily on how much muscle we have, and more muscle is always better," Gunter told seminar goers.
Gunter encouraged seniors to work up to jumping, which puts four to eight times of a person's body weight on the hip bones, the most critical area to build bone strength. Walking, by contrast, only forces the body to bear as much as one and a half times its weight, Gunter said. Combining jumping with other exercises in the "Better Bones and Balance" program, participants drastically decrease their risk of falling and breaking bones, according to an OSU study.
"If you don't fall, you may not fracture, regardless of your bone health," Gunter said.
The dual effectiveness of exercise is good news for osteoporosis suffers like Herbage, who said he's "always concerned about falling."
"I just wished I would have known earlier."