Did you know that as you get older your bones get weaker? But luckily, there are things you can do to keep them in great shape. Protecting your bone health is actually easier than you think. Here's how to keep your bones, strong healthy and at the top of their A-game.
Most people reach their peak bone mass at 30, but then after that you start to lose bone density — that’s when your bones become weaker and more brittle so they are much more likely to break. So protecting them now is your best bet to keep them strong and healthy as you age.
The good news is, there are lots of things you can do to put your bones at the top of their game, and a lot of them include making simple lifestyle changes.
What is bone health and why is it important?
Our bones are the foundation of our bodies. They support us in every way; without them, we wouldn’t be able to stand up or move around. They protect our brain, heart and other organs from injury, and they also store essential minerals such as calcium and phosphorous, that your body needs for energy metabolism — the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into the energy your body needs to function — and to build strong, healthy bones.
But as we get older, our bones become weaker. This is because with age, the structure of bone changes, and this results in loss of bone tissue.
Bone density changes over time. When you’re young (throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood) the bones absorb nutrients and minerals to gain strength. Your body is able to form new bone quicker than it can break down old bone — this is why bone mass increases during these years.
Most people will reach their peak bone mass between the ages of 25 and 30, then by the time we reach age 40, we slowly begin to lose bone mass. Low bone mass means your bones are much weaker. When your bones are weak, this puts you at risk of breaks from a sudden bump or fall.
People who develop a higher peak bone mass when they’re young are better protected against osteoporosis (a disease where bones become weak and are more likely to break) and related fractures later in life.
There’s a limited window that we can influence our peak bone mass — meaning the best time to build bone density is during years of rapid growth; during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Once you’ve reached peak bone mass, you’ll no longer be able to gain bone density. Therefore, making healthy choices during these stages of your life can significantly strengthen your bones in older age.
Although everyone will lose bone with age, we can, however, take steps to avoid severe bone loss over time. You might not be able to increase your mass after a certain age, but you can maintain bone density and slow the rate of bone loss, at any age.
For most of us, bone loss can be significantly slowed simply through proper nutrition and regular exercise, as well as avoiding things like smoking, bad diet, inactivity, and excessive alcohol intake.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle. Everyone’s bones become weaker with age, but in some people this process happens too quickly. The likelihood of you developing osteoporosis depends on how much bone mass you attain when you’re younger. Essentially, the more bone mass accumulated before the age of 30, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis.
What affects bone health?
A number of factors can affect bone health. These can include:
The amount of calcium in your diet
A diet low in calcium can cause low bone density, early bone loss and an increased risk of fractures.
Getting enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus from the food you eat. Getting enough of both nutrients is an important part of making sure your bones are dense and strong.
How active you are
People who are physically inactive have a higher risk of osteoporosis than those who exercise frequently.
Drinking and smoking
Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol excessively can increase your risk of osteoporosis.
You're at greater risk of osteoporosis if you're a woman, because women have less bone tissue than men.
You're at risk if you are extremely thin (with a body mass index of 19 or less) or have a small body frame because you might have less bone mass to draw from as you age.
Your bones become weaker as you age.
Race and family history
You're more at risk of developing osteoporosis if you're white or of Asian descent. You're also at greater risk if you have a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis — especially if you also have a family history of fractures.
Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. Bone loss also dramatically increases during menopause, due to dropping oestrogen levels. In men, low testosterone levels can cause a loss of bone mass.
Eating disorders and other digestive conditions
People who suffer with anorexia or bulimia are at risk of bone loss. Being severely underweight weakens bone in both men and women. In addition, stomach surgery (gastrectomy), weight-loss surgery, and conditions such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease and Cushing's disease can affect your body's ability to absorb calcium, thus making your bones weaker.
Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, can be 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.
What can I do to improve my bone health?
Although our bones get weaker as we age, bone health is essential at all stages of life, no matter what age you are. You can still make healthy choices to prevent or slow down bone loss. It’s particularly important to make sure you get enough calcium and Vitamin D.
Here are 7 simple healthy lifestyle switches you can make to improve your bone health:
1. Eat calcium-rich foodsCalcium is essential for building and maintaining strong bones. Most people need at least 3 serves of calcium rich food a day. A serving size is a glass of milk (250ml), tub of yoghurt (200g) or a slice of cheese (40g).
If you can't get the recommended amount of calcium from your diet, (particularly if you have low bone density) you can take a calcium supplement. Healthy Bones Australia recommends taking a maximum of 500mg to 600mg of calcium per day. We advise you to talk to you doctor about whether you need a calcium supplement and what the right dose is for you.
Good sources of calcium include dairy products, almonds, broccoli, kale, canned salmon with bones, sardines and soy products, such as tofu. If you find it difficult to get enough calcium from your diet, ask your doctor about supplements.
2. Get your daily dose of Vitamin D
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, promote bone growth and strengthen the immune system. It's often referred to as “the sunshine vitamin”, quite simply because your body produces vitamin D naturally when it’s directly exposed to sunlight. To up your levels, just simply head outside to soak up a few rays for a few minutes each day. Here's how to ensure you're getting enough vitamin D a day.
Vitamin D can also be absorbed by the body through diet — with certain foods and supplements — to ensure that you have adequate levels in your blood.
Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish — salmon, trout, whitefish and tuna. Mushrooms, eggs and fortified foods, such as milk and cereals, are also good sources of vitamin D. Sunlight also contributes to the body's production of vitamin D. If you're worried about getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor about supplements.
Bones get stronger the more you use them. Weight-bearing exercises like walking, jogging, dancing, golf, tennis, and climbing stairs, can help you build strong bones and slow bone loss.
You can also strengthen your bones by lifting and carrying. Weight training is your best bet, but carrying shopping, gardening and housework all count too!
4. Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Stick to a balanced diet that's full of protein (meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds), fresh fruit and vegetables, and carbohydrates (bread, pasta, potatoes and rice).
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Be careful not to lose too much weight. Being underweight or anorexic can increase your risk of osteoporosis. It can also affect the amount of oestrogen (a hormone that helps to protect your bones) in your body.
6. Drink sensibly and in moderation
Alcohol, tea, coffee, and soft drinks all reduce the amount of calcium your body can absorb, which as a result, can weaken bones. Stick to the recommended amounts of alcohol — for women, avoid drinking more than one alcoholic drink each day; for men, avoid drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day. If you can, try to swap your caffeine-fuelled drinks for water.
7. Quit smoking
Smoking affects the body's ability to absorb calcium, leading to lower bone density and weaker bones. Nicotine slows the production of the bone-forming cells that are crucial to healing, so smokers are more likely to develop osteoporosis. Aim to cut down or, better still, quit smoking altogether.
What supplements can I take?
We asked our pharmacists which supplements they recommend to boost bone health.
Trust Osteo D Vitamin D 1000 IU 250 Capsules
Bio Island Milk Calcium Bone Care 150 Capsules
Ostelin Kids Calcium & Vitamin D3 90 Tablets
Swisse Ultiboost Calcium + Vitamin D 150 Tablets
Ethical Nutrients Megazorb Bone Builder Powder 150g
Brauer Baby & Kids Liquid Vitamin D 400IU 10mL
Loved our advice on bone health? We've got lots more health advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Can supplements really boost your immune system? Find out what your headache is trying to tell you.