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Bone strength: How to build strong bones now so you don't have to worry later

Posted by for Wellbeing

To stay mobile and independent well into our old age, we need to have strong bones. The work needs to begin now, however, if you want give yourself the best chance of a healthy, long life. 

Forget weight loss, muscle building or performance goals. Your next health and fitness regime should go even deeper – down to your bones.

You might be hard-pressed to find an Instagram influencer that promises you denser bones in 12 weeks, but the experts say strong bones matter. Strong bones provide vital support for our muscles and organs. They protect against injuries and fractures and even affect our posture, preventing us from hunching over and having back pain. 

According to a recent report, women aged over 45 in the UK spend more days in hospital due to osteoporosis than diabetes, heart attack or breast cancer and an alarming 1,150 people die every month in the UK following a hip fracture.

It’s easy to feel like that’s a problem for our older selves, but many of us are derailing our chances of having active, mobile futures by unwittingly sabotaging our bone health every day. As women, we tend to suffer from the thinning of bones at a far higher rate than men due to having smaller bodily frames and fluctuating levels of oestrogen that work to protect them. When we hit menopause, that oestrogen zaps away and our chances of developing osteoporosis (a condition where bones break easily) increases.

So how do we know that we are harming our bones? And what can we do about it? 

Women chilling in the gym
Making sure that you're eating and moving for strong bones when you're young ensures that you'll still be moving well in the future

Risks of weaker bone health

According to a new study, even air pollution can worsen bone health. Short of trading in your city flat for a BBC-inspired Escape to the Country, there are few ways to avoid air pollution in a big city. 

According to Dr Luke Powles, Associate Clinical Director of Bupa Health Clinics, however, things like consuming too much salt, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and being underweight, can all contribute to poor bone health. While the strength of our bones is difficult to measure without testing, there are some warning signs to look out for. 

“If your periods are irregular or infrequent, this could be related to low oestrogen levels, which can contribute to bone loss,” says Dr Powles. Regularly taking steroid medication (including corticosteroid medications), untreated premature menopause as well as sustaining a fragility fracture (breaking a bone with minimal force) can all contribute towards weakening bones, too.

“You’re generally at a greater risk of poor bone health if you’re a woman, extremely thin (with a BMI of 19 or less), and if you’re white or of Asian descent. Having had an eating disorder or severely restricting your food intake will increase your risk, and so will a family history of weak bones or osteoporosis.”

How to exercise and eat for stronger bones

Most of our bone mass is developed by the time we turn 20. That’s why Dr Powels tells us that “the best time to build bone density is in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.” However, he also says that it’s possible to “significantly improve your bone mass through a varied diet and regular exercise.” 

Lift and walk your way to a stronger frame

For those of us aged between 18 and 35, weight-bearing exercises like weightlifting, running, and dancing will improve bone health. When you reach 35, bone density starts to gradually decrease, so it’s crucial to that you do plenty of muscle strengthening exercise before and after to stay strong – ideally twice a week. Dr Powles adds that we need to “remember to target all areas of the body in workouts, from your arms and legs to your core and back.”

Marylebone-based osteopath Anisha Joshi agrees, telling us that an increase in sedentary lifestyles has been one of the biggest barriers to better bone health. “Lifting weights or doing walking lunges, squats and dumbbell presses can also aid in the strength of your bones. It is important to do these exercises in a slow and controlled way, with good form to gain maximum benefit.”

When push comes to callisthenic shove, it all boils down to doing workouts that are weight-bearing. “Activities like walking and tennis also help us maintain bone mass as it forces you to work against gravity.” As an added bonus, she says that exercise improves coordination, muscle strength and balance — all helping us prevent falls and fractures in the first place. 

Eating for healthy bones

Every cereal box and dairy advert will tell you that calcium is crucial for strong bones. While calcium keeps the bones healthy, vitamin D is needed to help your body absorb that calcium. “Calcium doesn’t just come from milk,” says Joshi. “Other good sources are leafy green vegetables, tofu, soya beans, soya drinks, nuts and fish like sardines.”

Most vitamin D is absorbed through sunshine on our skin, but it also comes in food form too. When it comes to eating for better bones, Joshi says the following foods are crucial to stock up on:

  • Eggs
  • Oily fish
  • Rice and oat drinks
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pulses
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Powdered milk
  • Fortified soya
  • Dried fruits
  • Fortified fat spreads

Dr Powles explains that supplements can be a great way to top up any deficiencies. This is particularly important when it comes to getting the right amounts of vitamin D, especially for those of us living in greyer, cloudier climates. He suggests opting for a daily supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D, and says “current guidelines advise that absolutely everyone takes a vitamin D supplement.”

As for calcium, the amount we need changes at different stages of our lives. But as a general guide, most adults should aim to have 700mg to 1000mg of calcium every day. On the topic of micronutrients, Dr Powels says salt is a big contender for bone health too. Having too much of it can be harmful. “Limit your salt intake to no more than six grams every day,’ he warns. 

Lifestyle matters

As with every other health goal, smoking and drinking are to be avoided too. “Lots of studies have shown a direct link between smoking and decreased bone density because it slows down the cells which build bones in your body. It also increases the risk of a fracture and has a negative impact on bone healing,” Joshi tells us. “Interestingly, if you’re a woman, smoking also increases your chances of early menopause and women going through the menopause are more likely to develop osteoporosis.”

While no one is advocating for you to go tee total, watching how much you drink isn’t necessarily the worst idea. Dr Powels recommends drinking no more than 14 units a week (the equivalent of 10 small glasses of low-strength wine) and making sure you spread these out throughout the week. “Try to spread your units evenly over at least three days of the week, too,” he advises.

Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers. 

Image: Getty

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