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Looking after your bones

Looking after your bones

Strong and dense bones are the foundation of a strong and healthy body, and are essential to maintain fitness and flexibility as we age. Here are some ideas for exercise and nutrition to keep your skeleton as healthy as the rest of your body.

Most of us don’t worry too much about our bones, unless we happen to have an accident that breaks them. Once we have reached our adult height, many of us assume that our bones need no more maintenance. We concentrate on controlling our weight and toning our muscles.

Our bones may be out of sight, but they should not be out of mind. In the same way as the hidden parts of our houses support all the visible bits, the skeleton is literally and figuratively the ‘backbone’ of our health.

How do bones grow and maintain themselves? Two different types of bone cells work in harmony throughout life. One type adds bone, the other takes it away – they work together to ensure bone growth during childhood and to maintain bone strength once we are past puberty. If everything is in balance, bones remain strong.

Unfortunately, the passage of time does tend to weaken bones. Natural ageing means that our bones become more fragile with the passage of time – this deterioration can begin as early as the thirties. Bone loss can be accelerated for those suffering from a condition called osteoporosis. This makes bones less dense and can leave sufferers very susceptible to fractures, as well as reducing height and creating a stooped posture. Fractures in the elderly can be very serious, as long periods of immobility lead to pneumonia which can even kill.

Old age may seem a long way ahead, but working to strengthen bones now will pay dividends. As always, lifestyle is important – if you smoke, give up as it is as bad for bone strength as it is for your lung and heart health. Other factors play a part – women need to take particular care as pregnancy and breast feeding can weaken bones. Women are also vulnerable to osteoporosis after the menopause, so it is even more important to look after your bones.

Bones can be strengthened both by diet and exercise. For good bones, everyone needs to make sure that their food contains plenty of calcium. This is found in dairy products and in dark green vegetables. Vitamin D is used by the body to strengthen the bones – most people can produce enough of this by spending normal periods of time outside in daylight during the summer months.  There is a suggestion that excessive amounts of protein in food will weaken bones – but this is really only an issue for those eating huge amounts of protein while being deficient in calcium. Excess salt is also bad for bones, as well as being shown to increase blood pressure and hence the risk of stroke.  As usual, a balanced diet will only do you good.

That balanced diet also needs to be combined with a reasonable amount of exercise. To maintain bone strength, exercise needs to be weight-bearing. This means working the bone against the pull of gravity. As bone is a living part of the body, it reacts to this and to the pull of the muscles on it by adding cells and becoming denser. (Gravity is very important for bone strength – astronauts who have spent long periods in the zero-gravity conditions of earth orbit have returned with noticeably weaker bones).

Good weight bearing exercises include:

  • Walking – all walking is good, but including even moderate hills will add some helpful strength to your bones and muscles.
  • Running – joggers and runners give their bones extra strength with the impacts involved. Make sure that you have suitable running shoes and that they are replaced when they start to wear out. Regular runners will need new shoes more frequently than they might think!
  • Weight training – most gyms offer free weights and weights machines, and these are excellent for both lower and upper body strength and bone health.
  • Dancing – exercise to music does not have to be aerobics! Even gentle tea-dances and waltzes get you moving and on your feet, and a night at the club or disco is a chance to let it all go and to help your bones at the same time. Just make sure that you don’t undo all the good work with too much alcohol.
  • Housework and gardening – get fit, strengthen bones and get the chores done at the same time! Lifting and pushing lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, shifting furniture, walking back and forth round the garden and going up and down stairs are all good weight-bearing moves. Most people can manage the housework without strain, but if you are planning a big session in the garden do warm up first and take care with your bending and lifting techniques.

Swimming and cycling are not weight-bearing and do not add load to bones – but they are still good forms of exercise. Just make sure that they are combined with other activities.

In short, most of the general good health advice will also benefit your skeleton, but give those invisible ‘girders’ some extra attention. It really will pay off later.