Weak Bones & Osteoporosis: Why Nutrition & Exercise Is Crucial

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July 28, 2022 - Updated July 28, 2022

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When you think about what motivates you to nourish your body and exercise regularly, what springs to mind first? For many of us, it’s all about feeling better physically and mentally. 

That could mean feeling more confident, strong and empowered, reaping the mental health and mood benefits, maintaining a healthy weight, or having more energy and reducing our risk of illness.

Something we don’t often think about as a great source of motivation to lead a healthy lifestyle, perhaps because it’s so hidden, is our bone health. 

In the later stages of your life, the last thing you want is to be struggling with poor posture, pain and brittle bones that break easily due to osteoporosis. Unfortunately, women are at much greater risk of this disease than men, but there are some things you can do now to help reduce your risk and maintain bone strength!

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What is osteoporosis? 

According to the National Institute on Aging and Mayo Clinic, osteoporosis is a disease where bones progressively become weak and brittle until they are at risk of breaking easily from everyday events such as falls, bumps or even coughing. Problem areas include hips, spine and wrists.

Throughout your life, your body has an amazing regenerative process where it constantly breaks down old bone and replaces it with new tissue, but around age 25-30, you hit your peak bone mass and the rate of tissue replacement decreases. 

That’s why there is such a focus on building strong bones when you’re young! The stronger your bones are when that rate of tissue replacement starts to decline, the better.

By the time you’re 40 or 50, your body may be breaking down more bone tissue than it is replacing, hence why older people are at a higher risk of osteoporosis. 

To help you visualise this change, bone tissue under a microscope looks similar to honeycomb. Your bones become weaker when the spaces in the “honeycomb” become larger and your bones become thinner. 

Osteoporosis is diagnosed by a doctor based on a physical examination, assessment of your medical history, and a bone density test using a special x-ray.

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What are the risk factors and warning signs of osteoporosis?

Because bone density isn’t something you can see or feel, many people don’t know they have weakening bones or osteoporosis until they break a bone. Ouch. Breaks and fractures in the hip and spine areas are common and can make daily life and movement very difficult. 

As you get older you may also notice you’re getting shorter, are in pain, or your posture is poor (or you might notice these changes in a loved one!). 

Your healthcare provider may perform bone density tests and the discovery of low bone mass in these tests (also known as osteopenia) is another warning sign. At this point, taking positive action can still help to keep your bones strong and prevent osteoporosis.

Although it’s natural for your bones to become weaker with age, this process can happen much faster depending on your lifestyle and health. Other risk factors can include: 

  • Early menopause

  • Being over 50 years old

  • Being a woman, with white and Asian ethnicities more likely to have osteoporosis

  • A family history of osteoporosis

  • Calcium or vitamin D deficiency

  • Not eating enough in general

  • Smoking/tobacco use

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • A smaller body frame (meaning your bones are thinner and you have less bone mass to draw from)

  • A sedentary lifestyle

  • Low sex hormones

  • Thyroid issues

  • Some medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, coeliac disease and certain cancers

  • Some medications

  • Gastrointestinal surgery (which limits the area for the absorption of nutrients)

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How can you prevent osteoporosis? 

While you can’t influence some risk factors, like your family history, ethnicity and genetics, Mayo Clinic says there are some healthy lifestyle changes you can make to prevent or reduce your risk of osteoporosis. 

Maintaining healthy, strong bones throughout your adult years involves a focus on certain nutrients and types of exercise. Because osteoporosis is an irreversible condition, it’s important to make these a priority.

In terms of nutrition, you want to make sure you’re eating foods rich in calcium and getting plenty of vitamin D (which helps increase calcium absorption), either through sunshine or your diet. The recommended daily intake of calcium for women between ages 18-50 is 1,000mg, and then this increases to 1200-1300mg per day for women above 50.

Good sources of calcium:

  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt (if you can tolerate lactose)

  • Dark green leafy vegetables

  • Soy products such as tofu and tempeh

  • Fortified products such as bread, juice and cereals (always check the label) 

What about calcium supplements?

If you don’t consume a lot of calcium-rich foods or are concerned about your intake, it’s best to see your healthcare professional for a test. Calcium supplements are not something you want to take without professional testing and advice as excess calcium has been linked to kidney stones and may also increase your risk of heart disease. 

Good sources of vitamin D:

  • Sunshine

  • Fatty fish such as salmon

  • Fortified products (check the label)

What about vitamin D supplements? 

If you don’t get much exposure to the sun or consume many food sources of vitamin D, check with your healthcare professional if a supplement could be right for you.

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Exercise and bone health

For the optimal balance of training for your bone health, you want to focus on three things - strength training, weight-bearing and balance. 

Regular weight-bearing exercise is important for your bone strength and can include brisk walking, jogging, hiking, dancing or climbing stairs. 

Strength training is another great way to build and maintain the strength of your bones as well as the muscles around them. If you’re a beginner, bodyweight workouts or Pilates is a great place to start, and then you can progress to adding weights when you feel confident.

To improve your balance, which is important for reducing your risk of falls, try incorporating yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi into your routine. For intermediate to advanced fitness levels, you could also try adding some one-legged exercises into your routine like pistol squats, single-leg barbell squats, or single-leg deadlifts, or use unstable equipment like a bosu ball.

Sweat is about so much more than your workouts

Feel your best - inside AND out

Making positive changes to how you nourish and move your body is about so much more than how you look and feel - it’s also a way to future-proof your health and take care of all the parts of your body that are hidden beneath the surface, like your bones!

If you don’t eat many calcium-rich foods or your workout routine has taken a backseat, today is a great day to start those healthy habits again.

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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