The older we get, the more fragile we become, no matter how tough we may think we are. According the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 54 million Americans live with osteoporosis or low bone mass.
When your bones are in chronic pain, the last thing you want to do is put them to work, forcing them to exercise. Despite this, multiple studies show that exercise, especially strength-training exercises, is more effective at treating osteoporosis than other therapies.
But First, What Is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis means “porous bone,” and happens when our bodies lose the minerals that make up bone tissue and/or make too little new bone tissue. Normal bone tissue looks like a sponge when you examine it under a microscope, with lots of tiny spaces contained within solid bone matter. Bones affected by osteoporosis have larger spaces and bigger holes, which makes them less solid, more brittle and at increased risk for breakage.
Bones (and teeth) function as “calcium banks,” and hold 99% of our body’s calcium resources. Our bodies continuously withdraw and deposit this calcium, using it for cardiac functioning, blood clotting, nerve conduction and other vital functions. If we withdraw more calcium than we deposit, our bones lose their density, which can lead to osteoporosis.
Who Gets Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis affects 50% of women and 25% of men over age 50.
Why do women get it more often? It’s because estrogen contributes to bone resorption (breakdown) and new bone development. Once a woman is past menopause, she has less estrogen to contribute to the process.
While age is the biggest factor, the National Osteoporosis Foundation says that many health problems, medical procedures and medications contribute to osteoporosis. These include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, gastric bypass surgery, cancer, diabetes, thyroid and other endocrine diseases, blood and bone diseases, depression and eating disorders. Chemotherapy and certain medications can also affect the amount of calcium and nutrients that are absorbed by the body.
The best way to know if you’re at risk is to have your bones evaluated with bone mineral density (BMD) tests: X-rays that determine bone density and severity of osteoporosis.
While there is no cure for osteoporosis, there are things you can do to prevent it, slow or stop its progress, and even improve bone density:
1. Exercises for Osteoporosis
“When you participate in a total body exercise program that includes cardio, flexibility and strength training, you keep your muscles strong, posture straight and your spine and joints flexible,” says Liesa Harte, MD, a Functional Medicine specialist in Austin, TX.
“Weight-bearing exercises are particularly important for bone health because they help your bones absorb calcium. Add some impact to your cardio routine, too. Walking, jogging and gentle aerobics offer enough impact to boost bone health.”
2. Increase Your Calcium Intake from Dietary Sources
You need both calcium and vitamin D to make strong bones.
“Most men and women lose bone density as they age,” says Harte. “It’s generally from calcium depletion caused by hormonal decline, and is especially common for women.
Nutritionist Monica Reinagel agrees. “For women, the loss of bone mass accelerates dramatically after menopause. That’s why women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, and to be diagnosed at an earlier age than men.
For decades, scientists reasoned that boosting calcium intake with supplements would help slow age-related bone loss and prevent fractures. Unfortunately, we now have enough data to see that it hasn’t worked out the way we hoped.”
Getting your calcium from dietary sources (as opposed to supplements) has several advantages, continues Reinagel. “Your body absorbs calcium better when it gets it in smaller doses throughout the day, rather than all at once. In addition, calcium-rich foods provide other nutrients that help your body absorb and utilize this essential mineral.”
Aim for 1200 mg of calcium per day by eating calcium-rich dairy foods, leafy greens and some fish.
3. Increase Your Intake of Vitamin D
The more we learn about Vitamin D’s benefits, the clearer it becomes that this vitamin is a powerhouse. But, according to past research, it’s a vitamin that almost half of adults don’t get enough of. Vitamin D deficiency is a side effect of our busy, indoor lifestyles.
Age can also cause the skin to make less Vitamin D. Older adults are particularly susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency, partly because we don’t synthesize Vitamin D as efficiently as younger people do. The most common disorder associated with Vitamin D deficiency is osteoporosis.
This is an especially common condition for seniors and post-menopausal women. In fact, researchers found that post-menopausal women who consumed adequate amounts of Vitamin D had lower risks of osteoporotic hip fractures.
Vitamin D is sometimes called “the sunshine vitamin,” because our skin produces it when it is exposed to sunshine. It helps our bodies absorb and utilize calcium. And while many adults get the Vitamin D they need through ten to fifteen minutes of daily sun exposure (without sunscreen), a lot of us need to supplement our intake by consuming foods that are Vitamin D fortified (like dairy products) or by taking a Vitamin D supplement. Ask your doctor what dosage is best for you.
4. Ditch the Bad Habits
Both alcohol and tobacco leach minerals out of bone tissue. They also reduce circulation to muscles and bones, and speed up the aging process.
5. Medication for Osteoporosis
Depending on how severe your condition is, your doctor might prescribe medication (e.g., calcitonin, or estrogen and hormone therapies) to reduce your risks for fracture, stop bone deterioration and/or build new bone.
You’re Never Too Old to Take Care of Your Bones
Osteoporosis doesn’t have to be part of normal aging. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors for developing osteoporosis and what you should do to stay strong, stand tall and give your hard-working bones the support they deserve.