Bones – how to keep them healthy

Key points about keeping your bones healthy

  • Your bones aren’t usually something you think about taking care of until you break one or you start getting older.
  • Your bones grow a lot in the early part of your life, then from about your mid-30s onwards you begin to lose bone density. 
  • We lose bone strength as we age, putting us at risk of developing osteoporosis.
  • There’s a lot you can do right now to keep your bones healthy to avoid problems – especially later in life.
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As you age, you want to avoid osteoporosis – a condition where your bones become thin and brittle and break easily. The trouble is you may not know you have it until you break a bone. Osteoporosis is the main cause of broken bones in postmenopausal women and older men. Fractures are most likely to happen in hips, vertebrae of the spine and wrists, but other bones can break as a result of low bone density. Although it can affect younger people, it’s most common in women over 50 years of age.  

Why is it important to have strong bones?

If you have strong bones:

  • You are less likely to break a bone if you have a fall or an accident.
  • You are less likely to fear falling and more likely to stay active and maintain strong muscles and good balance.
  • You are less likely to have broken a vertebra (bone in your spine), which may have already happened without you knowing it. This can lead to muscle weakness and a change in posture which can alter your centre of balance and make it easier to fall over.

So it pays to do all you can to keep your bones healthy and reduce your chance of losing bone density. Here are some tips for how to look after your bones.

1. Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy body weight

By eating a balanced diet that includes enough calcium, you can lower your risk of developing osteoporosis. Staying in a healthy weight range is also important to maintain bone health. Being underweight or restricting your food intake weakens bone in both women and men. This can mean lower bone density and a higher risk of fractures.

Being obese can lead to a higher risk of diabetes and possibly a greater risk of falls. Some fractures are more common in people who are very overweight.

2. Get enough calcium

Calcium is essential for healthy bones and teeth. In Aotearoa New Zealand the recommended intake for adults changes depending on your age and whether or not you have already got low bone density. Read more about calcium.

The best sources of calcium-rich food are low-fat milk and milk products like cheese and yoghurt. Other good sources of calcium include:

  • tofu
  • soy, almond and oat milks that have been fortified with calcium
  • sardines and salmon with the bones in
  • almonds, sesame seeds, brazil nuts
  • broccoli.

Although some foods (eg, spinach, rhubarb, beans and some seeds and nuts) contain calcium, they also contain oxalates which limit the amount of calcium your body can absorb from them.

If you think you’re not getting enough calcium from your diet, talk to your healthcare provider about how to increase your intake. You could also ask for a referral to a dietitian to discuss dietary changes to meet your specific needs.

3. Get enough vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. We get most of our vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. However, the longer you spend in the sun the greater your risk of skin cancer, so it’s all about getting the right balance. For more information, see our page on sensible sun exposure.

Food sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, oily fish, cheese and some fortified foods like cereal. If you are worried about getting enough vitamin D, talk to your healthcare provider about supplements. Read more about vitamin D.(external link)

4. Exercise – especially weight-bearing exercise

Regular exercise, which is essential for general wellbeing, helps prevent and treat osteoporosis. Bones become stronger when they are active, just like muscles.

The best exercises are ones that work your muscles against gravity, and where you bear your own weight. These include exercises like running, dancing, tennis, skipping, hopping and walking. Resistance training such as lifting weights or using gym equipment helps to strengthen your upper body, and preserve bone health.

Video: Impact exercise for your bones – Intro and overview

Here's a video that introduces weight-bearing exercise and describes the types that are appropriate for different people. It's the first of a series and you can see the rest on this UK Royal Osteoporosis Society's video page(external link). It may take a few moments to load.

(Royal Osteoporosis Society, UK, 2023)

5. Don’t smoke and go easy on the drinks

We all know smoking is bad for our health and that includes our bone health. Studies have shown that smoking can prevent your body from absorbing calcium and increase your risk of fractures.

Similarly, too much alcohol (more than 2 units of alcohol per day) is bad for your general health and your bones. Read more about alcohol.

6. Injury prevention

As you age, injuries take longer to heal so it’s better to avoid them in the first place if possible. Removing hazards around the house (eg, things lying on the floor and loose rugs) can help prevent nasty falls and fractures.

Ways to prevent accidents include:

  • holding on to handrails when using stairs
  • wearing sensible shoes
  • having good lighting in and around your home
  • installing handrails in the shower or bath and beside outside steps.

7. Get a bone density scan

If you have any questions or concerns about your bone health, talk to your healthcare provider. Bone density scans, or DEXA scans which test the strength of your bones, are available. A bone density scan is quick and painless and can help in the diagnosis and ongoing management of osteoporosis. 

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Credits: Healthify Editorial Team

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