What can I do to build healthy bones and to prevent fractures?
We think our skeleton will provide a solid framework for life but it needs tender loving care just like our skin, hair or heart.
Dr Pam Brown, a GP, explains how to keep your bones healthy and why it's important to do so. There are many steps you can take to help build healthy bones, which are all linked to leading a healthy lifestyle.
Your skeleton grows stronger if you do regular weight-bearing exercise. This is any kind of physical activity where you are supporting the weight of your own body, for example jogging, aerobics, tennis, dancing and brisk walking.
Weight lifting is another good type of bone-building exercise, where the action of the tendons pulling on the bones seems to boost strength.
If you have osteoporosis you may need to be careful of vigorous, high impact exercise but it's important to stay active and find something you enjoy. Leading an active lifestyle will ensure you have good balance and co-ordination and will also help to develop muscle strength. The following exercises may help keep you fit and reduce your risk of falling and breaking a bone: swimming, gardening, walking, golf and Tai Chi.
Eat your way to healthy bones
The body contains 1kg of calcium, 99 percent of which is stored in our bones. While it is important to eat plenty of calcium to help build or maintain healthy bones, other vitamins and minerals are also important. If you enjoy a wide variety of food you will get a mix of all the vitamins and minerals you need.
The Food Standards Agency advises that a healthy balanced diet has:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least 5 portions of a variety every day)
- plenty of starchy foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta
- wholegrain varieties whenever possible
- some milk and dairy foods
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans, and other non-dairy sources of protein
- just a small amount of food and drinks high in fat and/or sugar.
What about dietary supplements?
If we eat a healthy, varied diet then we should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals we need from food. This is certainly a lot tastier than pills!
However, as we get older, we absorb nutrients less efficiently. Many older people also have smaller appetites so may benefit from supplements if they are getting insufficient nourishment from food.
The importance of vitamin D
Vitamin D is vital to help the body absorb calcium. The main source is the sun through our skin which the body converts into vitamin D and stores in our fat. Most of us will get enough sun to help our bones if we get out and about in the summer without even thinking about it.
However, older people, those who do not go out much and people who cover up for religious or cultural reasons may become deficient and 400 iu (international units), or 10micrograms, a day is recommended.
Studies have also shown that vitamin D and calcium supplements can help to cut the risk of broken hips in frail, older people so supplements may be prescribed.
Smoking has a toxic effect on bone by stopping the construction cells from doing their work. It's another good reason to try to give up.
Reduce your alcohol intake
Enjoying the odd glass of wine could actually help your bones. But drinking too much alcohol is damaging to our skeleton and increases your risk of fracture. Bear in mind that drinking alcohol can also make you unsteady and increase your risk of falling, and therefore breaking a bone.
The current daily recommended limit, as recommended by the Food Standards Agency, is 2 to 3 units for women and 3 to 4 units for men.
As you get older - get help if you are at risk of falling or falling frequently. A referral to a physiotherapist may be helpful to advise about exercises to help with balance and co-ordination. In some areas there will be a ‘fall prevention service’ provided at your local hospital.
Many older people fall in the home, so it is important to try and reduce the hazards that could cause you to trip and fall. For instance:
- Take your time using stairs and hold onto the rail
- Loose rugs or carpets, trailing wires, slippery floor surfaces and poor heating and lighting can increase your risk of falling
- Other health problems such as Parkinson’s disease, arthritis or stroke are common causes of falls and some medications can increase your risk of falling by affecting your balance
It is a good idea to have your eyesight and hearing checked because poor eyesight can increase the risk of falling and some forms of deafness can also affect your balance.
Ask your doctor to review all the medications your take. Taking lots of different medications can sometimes heighten side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. If your tablets are causing these problems let your GP know.
If you are concerned about falling and particularly if you tend to fall, you could talk to your local GP and ask for a referral to your local falls clinic. Help the Aged also offers useful information on preventing falls.
For older people who may be at risk of falling, hip protector pants are available which can help to cushion the force of a fall. These underwear garments have two protective hard shells built into cotton pants covering your hips to absorb the impact of the fall. However, research studies have not conclusively proved that they prevent broken bones.
All About Osteoporosis
All about osteoporosis is our in-depth 66-page book which comprehensively covers everything you need to know about osteoporosis and fragility fractures. To download it, please go to our Information leaflets and booklets page.
Most people know that both calcium and vitamin D are essential parts of maintaining healthy bones, but in fact these are only part of the story. Healthy bones need a well-balanced diet, incorporating a wide range of minerals and vitamins as well as protein from a range of different food groups. No single food contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to function well. The nutritional value of what you eat depends on the overall mixture, or balance, of foods that are eaten over a period of time.
How exercise can help with bone health, fragile bones and fractures. 58 page, A5 guide for people who wish to use exercise to help their bone health.
This factsheet discusses the different types of vibration therapy available. Whole Body Vibration (WBV) for example Power Plate and Galileo and Dynamic Motion Therapy (DMT) for example Juvent. The leaflet considers the impact of this type of exercise on bone density, muscle strength, balance and falls
Broken (fractured) hips are more common in older age. Risk of falling and fracture is greatest in women especially when poor balance and co-ordination is evident and loss of muscle strength. Often they fall sideways. Padded hip protectors can absorb the energy of the fall or moulded plastic protectors divert the impact away from the hip bone. They need to be properly fitted, and the soft padded versions may be more comfortable and likely to be worn. Other measures can reduce risk of falling and are discussed in the leaflet.
More information from us
Our osteoporosis helpline can offer you information and support by telephone, email, or letter.
For more details about publications we produce, you can visit Leaflets and Booklets page.
For further support you may want to visit our online osteoporosis discussion forum.
Find out more about osteoporosis associated with pregnancy with our podcasts