A Guide to Getting and Keeping Strong Bones

A sturdy frame is essential for doing the things you love all your life. It's never too early -- or too late -- to protect your bones. Here's what you can do to keep them strong at any age.

Teens Through 20s

The most important years for building good solid bones are from adolescence to about age 30. With good habits, you can increase your bone mass by as much as 20 percent during this time, says Dr. Kim Templeton, associate orthopedic surgery professor at the University of Kansas.

  • The Best Hour You Ever Spent The strongest bones come from spending an hour a day involved in weight-bearing exercises. These include walking, running, tennis, shooting hoops, or any other exercise in which your frame is stressed by your full weight.
  • Make Dairy Your Friend You need a calcium-rich diet that includes three servings of dairy products a day. You also need 400 International Units of vitamin D daily. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption, which is why most milk is fortified with it. A good chewable multivitamin can fit the bill. Check the label for the proper amount of vitamin D.
  • Diet Carefully There's immense pressure on teens to constantly diet, and dieting can rob bones of the nutrients they need exactly at this time of life. If you have to diet, make sure you do it under the supervision of a doctor or registered dietitian. There are ways to structure a diet so your bone health isn't compromised.
  • Limit Colas Carbonated soft-drink consumption has tripled in the last few decades. Not only is that bad for your belly, it's bad for your bones. Colas -- yes, the diet ones too -- contain acids that can rob bones of calcium. Drink soda only as an occasional treat or not at all.
  • Load Up on Veggies and Fruit "We now understand that bone is not just about calcium but many nutrients," says Katherine Tucker, a Tufts University epidemiologist. "A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains is associated with the highest bone mineral density."

30s Through 40s

Your body stops adding bone by age 30. Now is the time to concentrate on keeping what you have.

  • Supplement Your Diet Most people don't get enough calcium from their diets. To be safe, consume about 1,000 mg of supplemental calcium daily (1,500 mg if you're pregnant or breastfeeding) and at least 400 IU of vitamin D daily.
  • Remember Your Gym Shoes At this age, aim for at least a half-hour of varied exercise on most days.
  • See Your Doctor If your periods have stopped, make an appointment with a physician. This may indicate a condition that can lead to bone loss.
  • Monitor Your Thyroid Women's thyroids can act up, particularly in their 40s. An overactive thyroid can lead to bone loss. So can too much of the medications that treat an underactive thyroid. Thyroid problems tend to run in families, so ask your doctor about checking yours with a simple blood test if anyone in your immediate family has a history of thyroid trouble.

50s Through 60s

Once you pass menopause, estrogen levels fall sharply, and so does your bone mass -- up to 20 percent within seven years.

  • Watch Your Salt One study of postmenopausal women found that the more sodium they took in, the more likely they were to have bone loss. Keep your intake to 2,300 mg (about a teaspoon) of sodium a day or less.
  • Have a Scan If you have any risk factors, ask your doctor if a baseline DXA scan makes sense. Dualenergy x-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, is painless and quick, and can uncover early signs of osteoporosis before it turns into a real problem. A machine scans your clothed body and measures bone-mineral quantity.
  • Revisit the Supplement Aisle If you're not already on calcium and vitamin D supplements, start. You need a total daily intake of 1,200-1,500 mg of calcium and 800-1,000 IU of vitamin D after menopause because the older you are, the less your body naturally absorbs vitamin D.
  • Get a Move On Bone is a living, changing material. It still responds well to weight-bearing exercises. Do 30 minutes of weight-bearing aerobic activities most days, and add strength training two or three times a week.

60s and Beyond

  • Protect Yourself Add nonslip mats in showers and baths. Don't use step stools, which can be a recipe for disaster. Reorganize items so they're within easy reach. Add handrails and good lighting to staircases, and put grab bars near toilets and bathtubs.
  • Maintain Balance Take up balance-improving activities, such as yoga, tai chi, or dancing. Try this simple exercise suggested by the National Osteoporosis Foundation: Stand, facing a countertop. Hold on to the counter and stand on one leg for 1 minute. Repeat with the other leg. Do this a few times a day until it becomes easy. For more advanced exercises, go to nof.org.
  • Learn About Treatments If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, you'll be pleased to know that treatment options have come a long way. One injectable drug, Forteo, can actually help rebuild bone. Other treatments include biphosphonates (Fosamax, Boniva, Actonel) and selective estrogen receptor modulators (Evista), all of which can slow the rate of bone loss.


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