5 ways to improve bone health

23 May 2023

An introduction

Healthy bones are one of the essential building blocks of overall wellbeing. They provide structure, protect organs such as your heart and your brain, and store vital nutrients and minerals. And, as anyone who has ever broken a bone knows, they make it a lot easier to move and perform everyday tasks.

That's why it's so important to build strong, healthy bones during childhood and adolescence - and to continue looking after our bones as we get older, as they become weaker and more fragile. Here are five top tips to help ensure your bones stay healthy and able to maintain the lifestyle you want for longer.

1. Ensure you consume enough calcium

To build and maintain strong bones, you need calcium to keep your bones and teeth healthy, vitamin D to help your body to absorb calcium, and sufficient protein to maintain a good level of muscle strength. And of these three, the most important is calcium. The recommended daily dose of calcium required by adults is 700mg, according to the NHS.

However, in the US, it is 1,000mg a day, or 1,200mg per day for women over 51 and men over 71 years of age1. That doesn't mean you necessarily have to take supplements to hit your calcium target, though. In most cases, eating a balanced and varied diet should give you all the calcium you need, along with all the other vitamins, nutrients, and minerals you need to stay healthy for longer.

Foods that provide high levels of calcium include:

  • milk, cheese, and other dairy products
  • leafy, green vegetables, such as broccoli or kale
  • fish with which you eat the bones e.g. sardines
  • soy products such as tofu

Did you know? Your bones are living tissue that is mainly made up of collagen and calcium.

2. Keep your vitamin D levels up

Vitamin D itself does not build bone mass. But it is vital for your body to effectively absorb the calcium in your diet. The easiest way to get vitamin D in the summertime is to expose your skin to the sun for short daily periods - without wearing sunscreen.

However, in the winter months, you may need to take a vitamin D supplement to attain the NHS target of 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day (for adults).

You can also boost your vitamin D levels by eating certain foods, such as:

  • oily fish, e.g., salmon
  • mushrooms
  • eggs

Fact or fiction? Eating disorders can damage your bones. Fact: being severely underweight - or indeed overweight - weakens bone strength in both men and women2.

3. Stay physically active

You lose both muscle and bone strength when you are inactive, so it's a good idea to do some exercise every day when you can. Even if you're not naturally sporty, 15 to 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise makes a big difference and is easy to fit in your daily routine.

Examples of moderate-intensity activities include:

  • walking
  • water aerobics
  • ballroom dancing
  • riding a bike on flat ground
  • playing doubles tennis
  • mowing the lawn (although not on a sit-on lawnmower)

For optimum bone health, it's also important to keep up your strength with weight-bearing activities such as lifting weights, climbing stairs, digging in the garden, and yoga, which has the added bonus of being great for your balance and flexibility too.

Know your numbers People over 65 should try to get 150 minutes, or two and a half hours, of moderate intensity exercise every week3.

4. Stop smoking

Research suggests that tobacco use contributes to weak bones, mainly because smoking reduces your body's ability to absorb calcium and retain vitamin D and as such lowers the building of bone mass. It can also have an impact on your hormonal metabolism and the circulation of your blood.

According to the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training, smokers are therefore 25% more likely to fracture a bone than non-smokers4.

Among women, smoking also increases the chance of undergoing the menopause at a younger age, thus raising the risk of developing the bone disease osteoporosis later in life (see below for more details).

The good news, however, is that stopping smoking can help your body to start partially reversing these risks, which is why people with osteoporosis are advised to avoid smoking, as are those recovering from a broken bone.

Did you know? You're at greater risk of osteoporosis if you're female, because women tend to have less bone tissue than men5.

5. Avoid too much alcohol

Like smoking, drinking too much alcohol significantly increases your risk of developing weak bones and osteoporosis. If you're a woman, it's therefore best to avoid drinking more than one alcoholic drink each day. And if you are a man, you should avoid drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day - or in other words, exceeding the government guideline of a maximum of 14 units of alcohol per week.

Other recommendations include spreading your units out over the week rather than saving them up for a weekend binge, and ensuring you have regular days when you don't drink at all. This is particularly important as you get older, as even mild intoxication increases your chances of breaking a bone by taking a fall.

Know your numbers Your bone mass increases until you hit 30, after which it starts to decline. So, to avoid getting osteoporosis later in life, it's important to build as much bone mass as possible by that age6.

What is osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a debilitating health condition that reduces bone density, making your bones weaker and more likely to break. People with severe osteoporosis can break a rib simply by coughing or sneezing.

However, the most common features due to osteoporosis are:

  • Broken wrist
  • Broken hip
  • Broken vertebrae in the spine

It can be diagnosed using a bone density scan that measures the strength of your bones. But often, osteoporosis is only discovered after a fall or impact has caused a bone to fracture.

For more information on causes, symptoms, and treatments, contact the Royal Osteoporosis Society.

Did you know? Osteoporosis means "porous bone"7.