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Building strong bones throughout your life

  • Story Highlights
  • Estrogen helps your bones absorb calcium, use calcium more efficiently
  • Perimenopause brings with it wild hormone swings that may lead to bone loss
  • Bone up with fiber-rich fruit instead of sweets
  • Diets with fruit and veggies are linked to a lower incidence of osteoporosis
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By Christianna McCausland
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The truth: By age 35 your bone strength has usually peaked, and by age 50 your risk of breaking a bone because of osteoporosis may be as high as one in two. But here's an important secret: Experts say smart lifestyle choices-from workouts to the right supplements-can greatly improve your odds of avoiding bone problems. What should you do right now? Just follow this age-specific game plan.

The 30s


Studies suggest that increase in body fat may lead to decreases in bone production.

Diet smarter

Serial dieting to stay in shape in your 30s comes with a big cost. "Women who take in fewer calories than they burn have decreases in production of estrogen that can be harmful to bones, especially over the long term," says Joan Lappe, Ph.D., R.N., a Creighton University professor of medicine and a researcher with Creighton's Osteoporosis Research Center.

Estrogen helps your bones absorb calcium and enables your body to use calcium more efficiently. A few weeks of dieting are thought to be harmless; any bone mass lost is likely reversible, says Robert Lindsay, M.D., Ph.D., a past president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation. But several months or longer could be harmful.

What should you eat? Foods that help you reach the daily recommendation of 1,000 milligrams of calcium-but you don't have to count on dairy if you're worried about fat. Collard greens (179 mg of calcium per serving), kale (90 mg), broccoli (90 mg), and almonds (71 mg) are great calcium sources. Supplements can be helpful, too, but don't ignore this: Diets loaded with fruit and veggies are linked to a lower incidence of osteoporosis. Get calcium-rich foods and recipes

Learn to relax

Between sleepless nights with restless toddlers, selling the boss on a charity project, and seeing that everyone gets dinner, it's hard to decompress. And that spells trouble for your bones. "When you're under chronic stress, you raise your level of cortisol, a hormone that alters mineral absorption. That begins to waste your calcium-a building block for bones," says James LaValle, RPh, a clinical pharmacist, board-certified nutritionist, and author of Smart Medicine for Healthier Living. Cortisol is actually the natural form of cortisone-based medications, which can thin the bones. Bottom line: Insist on some low-stress Me Time now-at the spa or in between the pages of a great novel-and your bones will thank you later. Learn how to relax and stress less

Drink a little less

You may want a buzz, but your bones don't. Studies show that more than two drinks a day boosts your risk of bone loss later in life, Lindsay says. Too much alcohol is toxic to cells that make new bone. Alcohol is a diuretic, too, flushing out bone-building minerals through the kidneys before they're absorbed. Drinking increases your risk of breast cancer, as well; the odds go up 10 percent for women who have between one and two drinks per day, compared with those who have less than one, and by 30 percent if you have more than three drinks a day. Is alcohol really good for you?

The 40s

Back off the brownies

Life doesn't slow down in the 40s, but women sometimes do. The upshot can be weight gain, a possible risk for bone problems. Studies suggest that increases in body fat lead may lead to decreases in bone production. Bone up with fiber-rich fruit instead of sweets; you'll feel fuller and be less likely to pig out on fatty foods.

Move your way

Can't get to the gym? No problem. Weight lifting is great for bone-building, but experts say that virtually any kind of exercise strengthens your bones. The key is to work against gravity so that your bones get stronger to handle the load.

Jogging, hiking, climbing stairs at work, doing aerobics in your living room, dancing, or playing tennis will get the job done. Most docs recommend doing these kinds of weight-bearing exercises for at least 30 minutes three or four times a week. Lifting weights two or three times a week is plenty. Like your muscles, your bones need rest days to restore themselves.

Get tested

Perimenopause brings with it wild hormone swings that may lead to bone loss. Estrogen levels start to drop dramatically in your 40s, which weakens your frame. The change could lead to low bone mass, or osteopenia, as well as an increased risk of osteoporosis. Roughly 27 million American women have osteopenia. What to do? Between 45 and 50, find out where you stand with a bone density (DEXA) scan, Lappe says. The results may uncover a need for medication. The test is a five-minute X-ray, and your insurance plan should cover it. Ask first. Making sense of medical tests

The 50s

Eat mindfully

When you hit menopause, your estrogen levels fall quickly and the need for bone-building calcium becomes extra-important. Dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt are great calcium sources, as are fortified foods like orange juice and cereal. But be mindful about everything you eat. Consuming a lot of salty foods, protein from meat, and caffeine can actually reduce your body's ability to absorb calcium, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. One study found that three cups of coffee per day could lead to bone loss. But here's the good news: Adding one to two tablespoons of skim milk to your cup of joe can help prevent that.

Supplement wisely

Women over 50 are supposed to get 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily. You'll probably need a supplement to get that much because even calcium-rich sources like six ounces of yogurt have only 230 milligrams. And don't just fixate on calcium. You also need 800 to 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D, which helps your body absorb the calcium. Your body makes D from sunlight, but too much of it poses skin-cancer risks. Salmon has a lot of D, as do many foods fortified with calcium. But experts say there's a strong chance you won't get enough D to keep your bones strong at this age. So a calcium-vitamin D supplement makes sense. LaValle recommends Citracal Plus, which has 250 mg of an easily absorbed form of calcium and 125 IU of vitamin D per pill. The best multivitamin for you

Strive for balance

The older you are, the less likely you are to have good balance, which can lead to debilitating falls and broken bones. "Your reflexes get slower, so it's more difficult to protect yourself against falls," Lindsay says. The risk is greater if you have low bone density. Boost your balance with a Tai Chi or yoga class. Bonus: You'll kick stress out the door-and worry less about osteoporosis. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

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