Osteoporosis is a serious health problem that diminishes quality of life and levies a financial burden on those who fear and experience bone fractures. Physical activity as a way to prevent osteoporosis is based on evidence that it can regulate bone maintenance and stimulate bone formation including the accumulation of mineral, in addition to strengthening muscles, improving balance, and thus reducing the overall risk of falls and fractures. Currently, our understanding of how to use exercise effectively in the prevention of osteoporosis is incomplete. It is uncertain whether exercise will help accumulate more overall peak bone mass during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Also, the consistent effectiveness of exercise to increase bone mass, or at least arrest the loss of bone mass after menopause, is also in question. Within this framework, section 1 introduces mechanical characteristics of bones to assist the reader in understanding their responses to physical activity. Section 2 reviews hormonal, nutritional and mechanical factors necessary for the growth of bones in length, width and mineral content that produce peak bone mass in the course of childhood and adolescence using a large sample of healthy Caucasian girls and female adolescents for reference. Effectiveness of exercise is evaluated throughout using absolute changes in bone with the underlying assumption that useful exercise should produce changes that approximate or exceed the absolute magnitude of bone parameters in a healthy reference population. Physical activity increases growth in width and mineral content of bones in girls and adolescent females, particularly when it is initiated before puberty, carried out in volumes and at intensities seen in athletes, and accompanied by adequate caloric and calcium intakes. Similar increases are seen in young women following the termination of statural growth in response to athletic training, but not to more limited levels of physical activity characteristic of longitudinal training studies. After 9-12 months of regular exercise, young adult women often show very small benefits to bone health, possibly because of large subject attrition rates, inadequate exercise intensity, duration or frequency, or because at this stage of life accumulation of bone mass may be at its natural peak. The important influence of hormones as well as dietary and specific nutrient abundance on bone growth and health are emphasised, and premature bone loss associated with dietary restriction and estradiol withdrawal in exercise-induced amenorrhoea is described. In section 3, the same assessment is applied to the effects of physical activity in postmenopausal women. Studies of postmenopausal women are presented from the perspective of limitations of the capacity of the skeleton to adapt to mechanical stress of exercise due to altered hormonal status and inadequate intake of specific nutrients. After menopause, effectiveness of exercise to increase bone mineral depends heavily on adequate availability of dietary calcium. Relatively infrequent evidence that physical activity prevents bone loss or increases bone mineral after menopause may be a consequence of inadequate calcium availability or low intensity of exercise in training studies. Several studies with postmenopausal women show modest increases in bone mineral toward the norm seen in a healthy population in response to high-intensity training. Physical activities continue to stimulate increases in bone diameter throughout the lifespan. These exercise-stimulated increases in bone diameter diminish the risk of fractures by mechanically counteracting the thinning of bones and increases in bone porosity. Seven principles of bone adaptation to mechanical stress are reviewed in section 4 to suggest how exercise by human subjects could be made more effective. They posit that exercise should: (i) be dynamic, not static; (ii) exceed a threshold intensity; (iii) exceed a threshold strain frequency; (iv) be relatively brief but intermittent; (v) impose an unusual loading pattern on the bones; (vi) be supported by unlimited nutrient energy; and (vii) include adequate calcium and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) availability.