Low-Cost Ways to Protect Your Bones

After her osteoporosis diagnosis 2 years ago, Roz Warren, 63, went on a mission to improve her bone health by making changes to her lifestyle.

"I've never been on any medications, and at 61, I didn't want to start," she says. "My doctor said, 'OK you've got 2 years to try everything in terms of diet and exercise to try to stop losing bone, but if it continues to get worse, we'll need to put you on medication.' "

Warren, a librarian, did her research, and what she found was a treasure-trove of low-cost ways to change her diet and tweak her lifestyle.

She cut back on salt and started snacking on bone-healthy foods like prunes, celery, and walnuts. She curbed caffeine, added a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement to her day, and with the help of a physical therapist, begin doing daily weight-bearing exercises.

At her 2-year checkup, Warren's bone scans showed signs of holding strong. "Everything has remained the same -- and that's good news," she says.

How to Boost Your Bone Health

As Warren found, you can prevent bone loss with some simple tweaks to your daily routine. The best habits for top bone health, says Andrea Singer, MD, clinical director at the National Osteoporosis Foundation, are to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and get regular exercise. You can also take medicine if your doctor suggests it.

Make these changes to your habits:

Get your vitamins and minerals. When it comes to bone building, two nutrients are at the top of the list. Calcium and vitamin D are the most important nutrients to bone development, Singer says. Your doctor may recommend you take supplements of both, but you can also get them through the foods you eat.

After age 50, you should get at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. Foods that are a good source include:

  • Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and milk
  • Leafy greens
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Canned salmon
  • Sardines (with bones)
  • Oranges
  • Almonds

Singer says it's trickier to get vitamin D from food alone, but adding these foods to your diet can help:

  • Fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon
  • Foods fortified with vitamin D, like orange juice and soy milk
  • Beef liver
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Egg yolks

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Warren made a habit of eating eight prunes a day to help safeguard her frame, and it was a wise choice. The dried fruits are chock-full of vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants, all of which boost bone production.

Other foods you can eat to get these important vitamin and minerals are:

  • Citrus fruits, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, and kale for vitamin C
  • Spinach, mustard greens, and kale for vitamin K
  • Beans, fish, tomatoes, and root vegetables for potassium
  • Nuts and seeds, fish, beans, and steel-cut oats for magnesium

 

Avoid Bone Busters

Take a look at your diet to see if there are any foods that you should cut back on because they harm your bones. For example, put limits on:

  • Alcohol (no more than 2 drinks a day)
  • Salt
  • Caffeine (no more than 3 drinks a day)

Also, do a medicine check for anything you take on a regular basis. "There are many medications that have an impact on bone health, but many cannot be avoided," Singer says. "You should speak with your doctor about how any medications you are currently taking may affect your immediate or long-term bone strength."

Exercise With Weights

Raising your heart rate isn't enough to strengthen bone. You need to do weight-bearing activities. Those are "on your feet" exercises," Singer says, including things like:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Dancing

Strength-training or muscle-strengthening exercises are equally important, especially if you have a smaller build.

"I walk probably for at least an hour and a half a day, and also carry books around all day, so I was really shocked to find out that I needed strength training," Warren says. Her physical therapist gave her a set of exercises that helped add a little muscle strengthening to her movements, and she added ankle weights to her treadmill walks.

Other tools and exercise methods:

  • Light weights
  • Exercise bands
  • Yoga and Pilates, modified to avoid bending forward or twisting your back

 

Keep Tabs on How Your Bones Are Doing

Warren changed her lifestyle after she got a bone density test, a special form of X-ray that shows your doctor how dense, or solid, your bones are. All women 65 and over and men 70 and over should get one. "It's the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs," Singer says.

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If you're over 50 and break a bone after falling from standing height, you should have the test to figure out if osteoporosis was the cause. Once you've had one fracture because of osteoporosis, your chances of having another goes up three to five times if you don't get treatment, Singer says.

Your doctor can also give you an evaluation called a FRAX test that uses information from your bone density tests and your other fracture risks to estimate how likely it is you'll break a bone in the next 10 years. This helps your doctor decide how best to tailor your bone care and keep your bones sturdy.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 23, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Roz Warren, Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Andrea Singer, MD, clinical director, National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Harvard Health: "Two keys to strong bones: Calcium and Vitamin D."


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Calcium Sources in Food."

Nutrients: "Dried Plums, Prunes and Bone Health: A Comprehensive Review."

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Bone Density Exam/Testing."

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