Maintaining strong bones is one of the most valuable things we can do to ensure overall good health. Our bones support our bodies and allow us to move, they protect our vital organs, and they store minerals that our bodies can use later on. As we get older, our bones become thinner and lose their density – but the good news is that there are lots of steps we can take to look after our bones and improve their health. Here’s the lowdown on bone health.
Why is bone health important?
Looking after your bones is extremely important because of the varied role bones play. Our bones provide structure, store calcium, protect our organs and anchor our muscles. Throughout our lives, our bones are in a constant state of flux: old bone is broken down and new bone is made. When we’re young, our bodies produce new bone faster than they break down old bone, although after the age of around 30, things slow down, and as we get older, our bones tend to lose strength.
Osteoporosis (brittle bones) is a condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more prone to fracture. How likely you are to develop osteoporosis depends on how much bone mass you’ve acquired by the age of 30, and how quickly you lose it after. Osteoporosis develops slowly over time and is frequently only diagnosed when a fall or impact causes a bone fracture. Menopause can also increase the chances of developing osteoporosis, because decreased oestrogen levels can lead to bone loss.
This means it’s even more important to look after our bones as we get older – and luckily, there are many lifestyle changes we can make, that can help us to maintain strong bones throughout our lives.
How can bones become damaged?
There are several factors that can increase the risk of our bones becoming damaged. Some of the most common are:
• How much calcium you get. A diet that’s low in calcium contributes to reduced bone density (the amount of calcium and other minerals that are found in your bones), premature bone loss, and an increased risk of fracture.
• Gender. Because women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than men, and may experience bone loss during menopause, they are more at risk of osteoporosis than men.
• Physical activity. People who don’t get enough physical exercise are more at risk of developing osteoporosis than people who do regular exercise.
• Tobacco. Smoking affects the body’s ability to absorb calcium, which can cause reduced bone density. Several studies show that smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fracture.
• Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with our body’s balance of calcium, a vital nutrient for healthy bones. It can also decrease bone density.
• Size. People who are very thin (with a BMI of 19 or under) are more at risk of developing osteoporosis, as they usually have less bone mass to draw from.
• Race. Research suggests that caucasian people and people of asian descent are at the greatest risk of osteoporosis.
• Family history. If you have a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis, or a family history of fractures, this can increase the risk of you developing osteoporosis yourself.
• Hormone levels. Reduced oestrogen levels caused by menopause can lead to bone loss, and in men, reduced testosterone levels can cause bone loss too. Having increased levels of thyroid hormones in your system for too long can also reduce bone density.
• Eating disorders. People who have suffered with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can often have a lower bone density and reduced bone strength. Consequently, this can make their risk of developing osteoporosis or fracturing bones higher.
• Surgery or health conditions. People suffering from conditions like Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease and Cushing’s syndrome may have problems absorbing calcium, which can lead to weakened bones. Additionally, stomach surgery and weight-loss surgery can also impact calcium absorption, and affect bone health.
• Certain drugs and medications. Using steroid medications like prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone on a long-term basis can reduce bone density.
9 ways to improve bone health
So what are some of the best ways we can improve our bone health? The good news is that many of these changes can easily be implemented in our day-to-day lives, and have the added benefit of boosting our overall health, as well as that of our bones.
1. Eat more vegetables
Eating plenty of veg isn’t just a great way to boost your immune system – it’s also good for improving the health of your bones. Vegetables are extremely high in vitamin C, which help your body produce bone-forming cells. On top of that, research suggests that the antioxidants found in vitamin C can protect bone cells from damage.
Vegetables can also improve bone density. Low bone density can contribute to conditions like osteoporosis and osteopenia (low bone mass), and eating more vegetables during childhood and young adulthood is linked to improved bone density. But it isn’t just children and young adults who benefit from upping their veg intake: one study of women over 50 found that the participants who ate onions regularly had a 20% lower risk of osteoporosis compared to participants who rarely ate them.
A common risk factor for developing osteoporosis is increased bone turnover, where old bone breaks down and forms new bone. One study showed that post-menopausal women who eat more servings of vegetables high in antioxidants showed a decrease in bone turnover. For ideas of how to incorporate more veg into your diet, have a read of our article on healthy recipes for January.
2. Stay active
Being inactive can cause your bones to lose strength, which increases the risk of osteoporosis, falls and fractures. According to the NHS, we should try to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Examples of moderate intensity activities include:
When it comes to staying active, doing something is better than doing nothing – even if you just go for a brisk walk around the block. You’ll know you’re doing moderate activity when your heart rate speeds up, you feel warmer, and your breathing is faster. You should still be able to talk when doing moderate activity – but you shouldn’t be able to sing! Walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of moderate activity. Have a read of our article on how to increase your daily step count to find out how to move more.
3. Do weight-bearing exercise
As well as doing moderate cardio, doing regular weight-bearing exercises, or strength and balance training, can also help to build bone strength and encourage new bone cell formation. Strength training doesn’t just prevent your bones from weakening – it can also add years to your life. One long-term study of 3,600 people showed that those with greater levels of muscle mass lived longer and stayed healthier.
Strength and balance training doesn’t just involve lifting weights and doing squats and press-ups – it can also include gentler forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi. For more information on the different ways you can strengthen your body, have a read of our article on the importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and beyond.
4. Get plenty of vitamin D
Vitamin D is also important for maintaining healthy bones. It helps our bodies absorb and store calcium, which helps to regulate the production of new bone cells. Along with calcium, vitamin D plays a key role in preventing osteoporosis, and studies suggest it might also help to prevent or delay the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, as well as improve muscle strength and function.
To protect our bones, the UK government recommends that we get around 10 micrograms (mcgs) or 400 IU (International Units) of vitamin D a day. From late March through to September, we can usually get this from sunlight alone, but in autumn and winter, the government advises that we should consider taking a 10 microgram daily supplement. However, you should never take more than the recommended daily amount (unless told otherwise by your doctor), as having too much vitamin D in the body can also be dangerous for your health. Before taking any supplements, it’s always a good idea to have a chat with your GP, who can advise you based on your individual circumstances.
To find out more about vitamin D, the role it plays in bone health, and how to get more of it from your diet, have a read of our article.
5. Eat high-calcium foods throughout day
Calcium is the main mineral stored in our bones, and it’s the most vital mineral for improving bone health. Because bone is continually broken down and replaced by new cells, it’s essential to consume enough calcium every day to protect your bone’s structure as well as its strength. According to the NHS, the RDI for calcium for adults under the age of 64 is 700 mg per day; while people aged 65 and over will need 800 mg. You should be able to get this from eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Rather than eating a lot of calcium at one time, it’s best to spread your calcium-intake throughout the day. This is because your body actually absorbs calcium better when you eat it in smaller amounts. Some of the foods that contain the highest amounts of calcium include seeds, dairy products, dark green vegetables, sardines, beans and lentils, almonds, dried figs, rhubarb, and tofu. Have a read of this article by Healthline to find out more about calcium-rich foods.
6. Make lifestyle changes
As we’ve already seen, smoking and drinking too much alcohol can lead to decreased bone density. Giving up smoking isn’t just good for your overall health, it can also reduce your chances of falling and breaking a bone, as studies show that smokers have poorer balance than non-smokers. If you smoke and would like to stop, there are plenty of free resources that can provide you with support and make it that bit easier – have a look at the NHS stop smoking services to find out more.
Drinking too much alcohol also interferes with our body’s ability to absorb and regulate calcium, and can increase your risk of bone density loss. You don’t need to cut out drinking entirely, but you should try to have several alcohol-free days each week. The NHS advises that men and women shouldn’t drink more than 14 units a week. To find out about recommended alcohol consumption, and to calculate your own units, have a read of the NHS advice here.
7. Maintain a healthy weight
Eating a healthy, balanced diet doesn’t just provide your body with the nutrients it needs – it can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Among post-menopausal women, being underweight is the main contributing factor when it comes to reduced bone density and bone loss, so a very low body weight can increase the risk of developing both osteopenia and osteoporosis.
On the flipside, being obese is also thought to impair bone quality – and the pressure of excess weight can increase the risk of fractures. Frequently losing and then regaining weight is especially detrimental to bone loss, and a recent study found that repeatedly losing and gaining weight can lead to significant bone loss over the years. Trying to maintain a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to protect your bones.
8. Eat food high in zinc and magnesium
Aside from calcium, magnesium and zinc are also minerals that are vital for maintaining strong bones. Magnesium helps convert vitamin D into an active form that encourages proper calcium absorption – and a study of more than 73,000 women found that the participants who consumed 400 mg of magnesium a day had a higher bone density than participants who consumed 200 mg. To find out more about which foods – such as dark chocolate and avocados – are highest in magnesium, have a read of this Healthline article.
Zinc helps your body produce bone-building cells and prevents too much bone being broken down. Good dietary sources of zinc include spinach, shrimp, flaxseeds, oysters, beef and pumpkin seeds. Studies suggest that zinc supplements can help us to maintain healthy bones later in life.
9. Consider taking calcium supplements, but always speak to your GP first
Because calcium is best absorbed in smaller amounts, it’s always best to get your calcium from your diet rather than from supplements. A recent ten-year study found that while getting plenty of calcium from food decreased the overall risk of developing heart disease, participants who took calcium supplements had a 22% greater risk of heart disease.
However, supplements can sometimes be helpful for those who have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis. According to the NHS, taking less than 1,500mg of calcium a day is unlikely to cause harm, but you should always speak to your GP before starting to take supplements – just to make sure this is the right course of action for you.
Generally speaking though, the supplement that’s often recommended for improving bone health is vitamin D, as our bodies cannot absorb calcium without it – have a read of our article to find out more.
Looking after our bones is important throughout all stages of life, but as we get older and our bones become thinner, it’s even more crucial to think about the different ways we can maintain optimum bone health. The good news is that there are lots of steps we can take to build and maintain strong bones for years to come – and many of these steps also help contribute to overall health, strength and longevity. If you’d like to find out more about how to look after your bones, you might want to read our article on osteoporosis.