How strong are your bones? If you’re at peak bone mass, they can be as strong as concrete. That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? Conversely, when we start to lose bone mass, our bones can become thin and brittle, more like drywall than concrete.
If you’re young, you may be thinking, “my bone health isn’t something I need to worry about right now.” Actually, if you’re young, now is the perfect to be working on bone strength.
Why Is It So Important to Have Strong Bones?
Why is bone strength important? Well, besides the obvious reason – they hold us up – the National Institutes of Health (1) says,
Our bones support us and allow us to move. They protect our brain, heart, and other organs from injury. Our bones also store minerals such as calcium and phosphorous, which help keep our bones strong, and release them into the body when we need them for other uses.NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center
Not only can healthy bones help us now, they can help us as we start to age. When we get older, we are more likely to lose bone mass and be more at risk for Osteoporosis, “a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both.” (2)
Did you know that we typically reach our peak bone mass at around age 30? That means they’re the strongest they’re going to be. When we’re young we build more bone than we lose. As we age the remodeling process continues, but we start to lose more bone than we make. That’s why it’s so important to build our bone mass when we’re young.
As the Mayo Clinic (3) says, “The higher your peak bone mass, the more bone you have ‘in the bank’ and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should just stop trying to keep our bones healthy as we get older. Our bones are living tissue; they’re in a constant state of remodeling. That means we still have the ability to impact bone strength as we age.
What Are Some Things That Affect Our Bone Health?
There are many factors involved in our bone health, some we have control over, and some we don’t. Here are a few:
Things We Can’t Control:
Age. Our bones become thinner and more fragile as we age.
Gender. Women are more likely than men to develop Osteoporosis. Women tend to have smaller bones than men, and we lose bone mass faster as a result of menopause.
Ethnicity. White and Asian women tend to be more at risk of Osteoporosis. That doesn’t mean that people of other ethnicities are completely ‘in the clear’ when it comes to risk though. We all need to keep our bones as strong as possible.
Family History. If you have a parent or sibling who has Osteoporosis, you may have an increased risk of developing it.
Things We Can Control:
Diet. Getting adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D in our diets can help us keep our bones strong.
Physical Activity. Bones become and remain stronger with regular physical activity. If we live a sedentary lifestyle we may be at a higher risk of losing bone mass.
Tobacco and Alcohol Use. Both tobacco and alcohol use have been linked to bone loss. Smoking can keep our bodies from using the calcium in our diet. More than one alcoholic drink per day for women, or two for men, can contribute to bone loss as well.
Certain medications. I hesitate to put this under things we can control, because many of us have to have medications for various health conditions. Although technically we have control over it, we don’t really have much choice if we want to have some quality of life. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the medications that can affect our bone health:
Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, is damaging to bone. Other drugs that might increase the risk of osteoporosis include aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications, such as phenytoin (Dilantin) and phenobarbital, and proton pump inhibitors.Mayo Clinic
Sometimes, as my previous doctor (now retired) told me, we just have to weigh the risks against the rewards.
Body weight. Very thin people are more likely to have thin bones as well. If your Body Mass Index is below 19 or you have a small frame, you’re at higher risk of developing Osteoporosis because you may have less bone mass to draw from as you age.
Of course, these are just some of the things that affect our bone health. Having risk factors for Osteoporosis doesn’t absolutely mean we’ll end up with it, but isn’t it worth doing what we can to reduce our risk?
How Can We Keep Our Bones Strong?
There are several things we can do to make sure our bones are as healthy as possible throughout our lives. Two of the most important are:
Eat a healthy diet.
Get plenty of calcium in your diet. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of calcium for people aged 10 to 50 (or to age 70 for men) is 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day. It increases to 1,200 milligrams for women after age 50 and for men after age 70.
Some good dietary sources of calcium are dairy products, broccoli, kale, canned salmon and sardines (with bones), soy products such as tofu, nuts, especially almonds, and beans and legumes.
Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D. Did you know vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium? Today, many of the calcium supplements also contain vitamin D because of the synergistic effect of the two working together. The RDA for adults aged 119-70 is 600 international units per day. Once we reach age 71, it increases to 800 IU per day.
Dietary sources of vitamin D include things like oil fish (think salmon, trout, tuna, etc), along with mushrooms, vitamin D-fortified milk and cereal, and eggs.
Also, don’t forget about the importance of sunlight when it comes to the formation of vitamin D. Getting just 15 minutes of sunlight a day can help boost vitamin D levels.
Eat a more anti-inflammatory diet. In his book, The Whole-Body Approach to Osteoporosis, R. Keith McCormick posits that part of what contributes to Osteoporosis is chronic low-level inflammation and a more acidic body state. He says, “When your body is acidic, you lose more calcium through your urine, and consequently, your bone’s osteoclastic [breaking down] activity accelerates.”
Eating a diet that helps our body maintain a more Ph-Neutral or alkaline state can help slow down that osteoclastic activity and hopefully, preserve our bone. Increasing the vegetables and fruits we eat and reducing the amount of processed foods we eat can help us in this regard.
We already know that exercise is good for our muscles, hearts and brains, but it’s also critical in building and maintaining bone mass and strength. As we talked about in Is Sitting the New Smoking leading a sedentary lifestyle can result in bone loss.
To add insult to injury, being inactive can lead to sarcopenia, which is muscle loss. When our bones are weak, maintaining muscle mass is more important than ever. That’s because having strong muscles can help prevent the falls that might break our bones.
So what kind of exercises should we be doing?
In short — all of them. We need cardiovascular exercise to keep our hearts and brains healthy, which of course benefits our overall health. To help build bone and prevent falls, though, certain types of exercise can be extremely beneficial.
One of these is weight-bearing exercise. This is, as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (4) describes it, “any activity you do on your feet that works your bones and muscles against gravity.” This includes things like brisk walking or jogging, jumping rope, climbing stairs, dancing, tennis, team sports, etc.
A quick note here: some of the higher impact activities, and those that cause you to have to change direction quickly, can be great for building bone when you’re younger as more stress on bones helps build them, but they can also be too much if your bones are already thin. It’s important that we talk with our doctors about which activities are appropriate for us at whatever stage we’re in with our bone health.
Another is strength training. As we just talked about, maintaining muscle mass is key when we experience bone loss. Strength training involves adding resistance to movement. This makes our muscles work harder and over time, makes them stronger. Strength training exercises may include using machines, free weights, elastic bands, or your own body weight to add that resistance and build those muscles.
Strong muscles = stability, and stability = lower chance of falls.
Equally important is balance training. Being able to maintain our balance is vital to prevent falls. Training for balance can include things like positional balance, training on unstable surfaces, and even Yoga or Tai Chi. Anything that can help us develop more awareness of where our bodies are in space can help benefit our balance.
Last, but certainly not least, flexibility training is key to helping us reduce our chances of injury. That’s because being flexible helps us move more easily. Any exercise session we do should end with a few minutes of stretching. That’s when our muscles are warm and ready to gain the most benefit.
As we talked about earlier, it’s important to start working on our bone strength as early as possible. That way, we have more reserves to draw on as we get older.
The good news is that it’s never too late to start working on it. We may not be able to build as much bone if we’re older, but we can certainly do things to keep our skeletons as strong as possible and reduce our fall risk.
Were you surprised by any of the factors that affect our bone health? What are some of the things you do to gain and maintain bone strength? Please share!
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