Like most people, you probably don’t pay that much attention to your bones until something doesn’t feel right or until you realize you are old enough to be concerned. After all, it is no secret that bone problems predominantly affects older adults.
While bone health does become increasingly important as you get older, the truth is, taking care of your bones is vital regardless of age. What you do and do not do for your bones at every stage of life can significantly influence how likely you are to develop bone problems in the future.
Bone Changes Throughout Life
A bone is a living tissue that undergoes constant change throughout life; old bone is removed, and new bone is formed. You can think of your bone as a “bone bank”, where you constantly make “deposits” and “withdrawals” of bone tissue.
During childhood and adolescence, more bone tissue is deposited than withdrawn; this allows the skeleton to increase significantly in bone mass (bone size and density). Around 90 % of bone mass is achieved between late adolescence and early adulthood.
Between 20 to 30 years of age, the amount of bone tissue withdrawn is just equal to the amount deposited. As a result, the bone stops growing further in size but still continues to accumulate density. The peak bone mass – the maximum bone tissue you can have - is achieved somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30.
Once peak bone mass is achieved, gradual bone loss naturally occurs afterwards. Around age 40, more bone tissue is withdrawn than deposited, and bone mass begins to decrease gradually with age. During this phase, the bone will have reduced mineral content and may be prone to osteoporosis – a condition in which bones are less dense, more fragile, and prone to fractures.
Tips to Keep the Bones Healthy
Although everyone will eventually lose bone with age, the likelihood of getting osteoporosis varies per individual. For most people, it usually depends on how much bone mass – or how much “investment” in your “bone bank” you attained early in life and how rapidly you experience bone loss once you are older.
Below are the tips that you can follow to maximize your bone mass and slow bone loss over time.
1. Eat calcium-rich foods
Calcium is a mineral essential for strong and healthy bones. In addition to being a building block for bone, calcium also plays an essential role in blood clotting, nerve transmission, heart rhythm regulation and muscle contraction. About 99% of calcium is stored in the bones, while the remainder can be found in the blood and other tissues.
In order to perform its vital functions, your body needs to keep a steady amount of calcium in the blood and tissues. This amount can be achieved and maintained by getting adequate calcium from food sources. If you don’t get the calcium your body needs from food, it is forced to take the calcium stored in your bones. While this is fine occasionally, your bones can get weak and fragile if the body takes calcium from the bones too often.
To promote bone development and prevent bone loss, aim to eat calcium-rich food sources every day. The following are the food items high in calcium that may be included in your diet.
- Dairy products (yogurt, cheese, and milk)
- Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, and kale)
- Beans and peas (tofu, peanuts, peas, black beans)
- Fish consumed with soft edible bones (canned sardines or canned salmon)
Calcium is also available in the form of supplements. However, calcium supplements are only recommended when you cannot get enough from your food and drink. Experts suggest that there is no added benefit to taking more calcium than you need, and doing so may even carry some risks, especially when taken in excess. Furthermore, your body is better able to absorb calcium from food than it can from supplements.
2. Get adequate Vitamin D
Vitamin D is necessary for strong bones and muscles. Without Vitamin D, your body cannot effectively absorb calcium, which is essential to good bone health.
You can get vitamin D by being under the sun for 10 to 15 minutes a couple of times a week. However, vitamin D from sunlight alone may be inadequate and impractical in some populations and situations. In which case, getting vitamin D from food sources may be recommended.
Only a few food sources have naturally-occurring vitamin D; these include cod liver oil, egg yolks, and fatty fishes such as salmon, trout, whitefish, and tuna. Most products such as milk, juices, and cereals are now “fortified” with Vitamin D, which means they have vitamin D added to them. Make sure to check the nutrition labels to see if a food product is Vitamin D-fortified.
Just like with calcium, vitamin D can also be obtained from supplements. Vitamin D supplementation is usually advised among those who are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. These people are outlined by from www.nof.org and include those who spend little time in the sun or those who regularly cover up when outdoors; people with certain medical conditions such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease; people taking medicines that affect vitamin D levels such as certain anti-seizure medicines; people with very dark skin; obese people; and older adults with osteoporosis. If you think you are one of the people at risk for vitamin D deficiency, talk to your doctor to discuss about possible Vitamin D supplementation.
3. Engage in weight-bearing or strength-training exercises
Exercise is essential for bone development during your younger years and maintenance when you get older. When you exercise regularly, your bone adapts by building more bone and becoming denser. It can also improve balance and coordination, which is crucial in preventing falls and broken bones in the future.
Evidence suggests that the most beneficial exercises for bone health are those that put pressure on the bones, such as weight-bearing exercises and resistance-training exercises.
Weight-bearing exercises are those that work your bones and muscles against gravity. Examples of weight-bearing exercises from orthoinfo.aaos.org include the following:
- Brisk walking and hiking
- Jumping rope
- Tennis, badminton, ping pong, and pickleball
- Team sports, such as basketball, soccer, and volleyball
- Stair climbing
Strength training exercises, on the other hand, are those that involve resistance to movement, which allows the muscles to work harder and, over time, become stronger. The following are examples of strength training exercises from orthoinfo.aaos.org that you may include in your exercise regimen:
- Using weight machines
- Using free weights (dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells)
- Bodyweight exercises (such as pushups and squats)
For bone health support, you should include at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercises, four or more days a week and strength training that exercise each major muscle group at least twice a week. It is also recommended to take a rest for a full day between strength training sessions.
If you have been inactive for a long time, begin any exercise program slowly to avoid injury. If you are an adult with orthopedic conditions like arthritis, functional limitations, or other medical conditions that make these physical activity guidelines difficult or unsafe to follow, consult a physician or physical therapist before engaging in any of the abovementioned activities.
4. Avoid substance abuse
Smoking cigarettes and excessive alcohol drinking can dramatically affect bone health and increase the risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Smoking cigarettes can keep your body from using the calcium in your diet. In addition, studies suggest that women who smoke go through menopause earlier than those who don’t smoke. Women experience rapid bone loss after menopause due to a decrease in the hormone estrogen. This means that the earlier you go through menopause, the earlier you will experience this rapid bone loss.
On the other hand, alcohol can also affect calcium and vitamin D absorption and alters the levels of some hormones that can affect bone health.
5. Understand your risk for bone loss
Aside from aging, other factors such as family history, hormone levels, certain medications, and certain medical conditions can affect your bone health.
Consult your doctor if you are concerned about your bone health. You may be asked to undergo a bone density test to determine your bone density and rate of bone loss. Knowing this will help your doctor to assess if you will need medication.