How to Build Stronger Bones at Any Age

Most people don’t think about their bones until they break one. But, it may be time to change that – even if you’re young and active. The reason is you were born with bones that are already much weaker than your ancestors’ were.

Scientists think the main cause of people’s weaker bones is from sedentary lifestyles. Bones get and stay strong when they are stressed by heavy work like lifting, hauling, and jumping. Sitting in front of screens and car steering wheels doesn’t do the trick.

Bone health is a big problem and it’s getting bigger. More than 2 million Americans break a bone each year because their bones are weak – a metabolic condition called osteoporosis. As the population ages over the next 10 years, one study projects a 50 percent increase in both osteoporosis related fractures and the cost of treating them.

Fortunately there are some things you can do to keep your bones strong. And the sooner you start the better.

A Problem Many People Face

Osteoporosis is a metabolic disease that occurs when bones grow more porous and weaken. Often people think of osteoporosis as a woman’s problem. But roughly 30 percent of those 2 million fractures that happen every year will happen in men.

It’s not just an older person’s problem, either. What you do to strengthen your bones up until the age of 35 can play an important role in your bone health later.

After 35 years old, everyone starts to lose bone mass faster than they can rebuild it. The tiny spaces between the bone tissue gets bigger (more air, less bone). So the trick is to try and slow down that loss through exercise and diet.

Physical Activity and Bone Health

The first and most important way to keep bones strong is through weight-bearing exercises. That’s because they either use the weight of your body or other weight to make the body work against gravity. Under that weight-stress, the bones get the message to build more bone cells.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise most days of the week. Each day, you can do the half hour in three 10-minute chunks or all at once.

Unfortunately some of the really good exercises like biking and swimming don’t offer the same bone building benefits like resistance exercises do. Good resistance exercises include:

  • Running or walking
  • Dancing or step aerobics
  • Activities that combine running and jumping like basketball or tennis
  • Jumping rope, vertical jumps, or doing jumping jacks
  • Weight or resistance band training

If you do work that involves lifting (construction, farming, or gardening), that can offer the benefits of weight bearing exercises.

Nutrition and bone health

Calcium is the mineral that makes up bones. That’s one of the reasons as a kid, you might have been told to drink your milk. Between the ages of 10 and 20, you were building the foundation for most of your bone mass. After that, you have to keep getting calcium into your bones to maintain dense bones.

Along with calcium, you need Vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin K. They all help your body absorb calcium or prevent it from being leeched away from the bones. Bones also need protein.

A very partial list of bone building foods includes:

  • Dairy products, yogurt, cheese
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes
  • Nuts and seeds, including peanuts
  • Oranges, strawberries, pineapple, bananas, raisins
  • Beans and legumes
  • Tofu and other soy products
  • Sardines and salmon (if they are canned and the bones are soft, eat the bones)
  • Fortified food such as cereals

One thing to avoid eating is salt. Whether it comes from processed foods or the salt shaker, it can draw calcium from your bones.

Read more from The National Osteoporosis Foundation about food and your bones.

Screening for Osteoporosis

There are bone density tests to measure your bone mass and see if you’re at increased risk for osteoporosis. The current United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommendation for screening is to screen women age 65 and older and younger woman who have an increased fracture risk equal to or greater than that of a 65 year old white women who has no additional risk factors.

As for men, the USPSTF says current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms from screening men for osteoporosis.

To figure out who has an increased risk of bone fractures regardless of age, doctors use a tool called FRAX. Some things that increase risk are smoking, drinking more than three drinks of alcohol a day, having arthritis, using cortisone, and having previous fractures.

Additional Resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has great information about calcium and bone health.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has more about healthy bones at any age.

Meet the Author

Joe S. Kohli, MD is an orthopedic surgeon at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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