Now the good news: Lowering your risk of osteoporosis is as simple as making small changes to your diet, fitness and lifestyle. Read on to learn how easy it is to start strengthening your skeleton today.
You’ve probably heard you should down plenty of calcium-rich foods, including milk, yogurt and cheese, to make your bones strong. But a study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research reveals that all those foods won’t make a difference if you’re low on vitamin D—and since it’s one of the most common vitamin deficiencies today, that’s key.
Why it works: Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and form new bone, explains lead study author Bess Dawson-Hughes, MD, senior scientist and director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. She recommends: 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium (the equivalent of eight ounces of non-fat yogurt and two cups of skim milk) and 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily.
Milk may hog the spotlight when it comes to bone-healthy foods, but according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, loading up on fruits and vegetables is also important to maintaining strong bones as you age.
Why it works: Diets high in protein and cereal grains—the kind most folks in Western countries eat—produce an excess of a certain acid in the body. As we age, the body becomes less efficient at excreting this acid, putting our bones at greater risk. However, eating fruits and vegetables counters the risk by adding bicarbonate, an alkaline compound that neutralizes the acid, to your system, explains Dr. Dawson-Hughes, who led the study.
Experts have warned for years that being too thin can cause brittle bones. In fact, having a few extra pounds was once considered a factor in lowering your risk of osteoporosis. However, a new study in the journal Obesity now reveals that carrying too much weight in your belly—known as visceral fat, which forms underneath muscle and wraps around your organs—turns out to be a significant risk factor for osteoporosis. Luckily, shrinking your stomach with diet and exercise can reverse this risk.
Why it works: While the exact reason is not known, it is likely due to a combination of bone-weakening substances released from the visceral fat cells themselves, plus a lower level of bone-supporting hormones. The result: Reduced bone density as well as more bone marrow fat, which has been linked to more fragile bones, says lead study author Miriam A. Bredella, MD, a radiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Dancing, brisk walking and other weight-bearing exercises help thicken bones by stimulating bone-building cells called osteoblasts. But, that’s not the only type of exercise that boosts bone density: Strength-training exercises—such as free weights, resistance bands and Pilates—work, too. In a recent study of women taking calcium supplements, those who were enrolled in a weight-training program increased the density of their bones by 1.4% after one year, while those who did no strength training experienced a 2.5% decline in bone mass, reports the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal.
Why it works: Bigger muscles exert more force on bones so they develop and grow to accommodate it, explains Felicia Cosman, MD, clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University. Aim to do strength-training exercises two to three times per week, gradually increasing in weights or repetitions.
Next time you’re craving a sweet beverage, try juice, flavored seltzer or an “uncola” rather than cola. A recent Tufts University study of more than 2,500 adults around 60 years old reveals that women who drink an average of seven cola-based sodas (including diet versions) per week have almost 4% lower bone density in the hip—even after controlling for calcium and vitamin D intake—than those who drink other beverages, including non-cola soft drinks, such as Sprite or 7-Up.
Why it works: The link isn’t clear, but it’s possible that phosphoric acid in colas creates a nutritional imbalance in the body that triggers calcium loss from bone, according to Katherine Tucker, PhD, lead study author and senior scientist and director of the Dietary Assessment and Epidemiology Research Program at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
Important: Talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new diet, fitness or supplement regimen.