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Improve your bones

woman holding_xray_17_05_12As you get older, your bones begin to get thinner. But there are lots of ways to keep them at full strength.

You are unlikely to give your bones a second thought until something goes wrong. And yet, as you get older and particularly if you’re a woman, you need to start thinking about boosting your bone health if you want to avoid nasty, debilitating diseases such as osteoporosis.

Without bones our bodies would literally have no structure. So what exactly are they? The outer surface of bone is called the periosteum: a thin, dense membrane that contains nerves and blood vessels that work to nourish the bone. The next layer is made up of compact bone, which is smooth, very hard and instantly recognisable as the part you see if you look at a skeleton.

Inside this compact bone are many layers of cancellous bone, which look a bit like a sponge. In larger bones, this cancellous part protects the innermost section of the bone, the marrow. This jelly-like substance is responsible for renewing blood cells.

But how can you make sure your bones are in the best of health and that they will see you through your old age problem-free?

Food, glorious food

‘Bone thinning can occur at any age if you are not careful with your diet,’ says Alana MacDonald, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association ( ‘It’s important to get a good ‘bone’ start to life as bone density reaches its maximum by the time you’re in your mid-twenties. You then need to maintain your bone-density level as it can start to significantly diminish around menopausal age.’

Fortunately, it is possible to boost your bone density levels by making the right food choices. ‘Vitamin D, calcium and magnesium are very important,’ says Alana. ‘Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is mainly gained from the skin’s direct exposure to sunshine. While it is harder to achieve your full vitamin D levels from food alone, a good source can be found in oily fish.

‘The best way to incorporate calcium into your diet is to eat dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurts,’ says Alana. ‘Lower levels of calcium can also be found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage and broccoli, as well as in pulses and beans such as red lentils, chick peas, soya and kidney beans. Magnesium, which helps the body absorb and retain calcium, is present in nuts and seeds.’

Remember, too, that it’s never too late to think about boosting your bone density. ‘Don’t allow current density levels to drop further than they already have,’ continues Alana. ‘Incorporating vitamin D, calcium and magnesium into your diet is a good start and adding exercise into the mix will also help add to overall bone strength.’

If you’re struggling to incorporate all these foods into your diet on a regular basis, consider one of the many vitamin supplements available to help you boost your levels.

‘There are countless products for sale over the counter, all of which claim to achieve varying degrees of success,’ says Alana. ‘The best thing would be to have a word with your doctor or local dietician (your doctor can refer you) to ascertain your individual need.

If you do end up opting to take a supplement, then these tend to work better alongside some considered life changes, too,’ says Alana.

Move it

It’s tempting to think you are ‘past’ keeping in shape and to stop exercising as you get older. Yet, this is a simple way to boost bone density and can make the difference between developing osteoporosis and fragile bones and maintaining good bone health for life.

So, what are the best exercises for increasing bone density?

‘For people with a low risk of fracture, weight-bearing aerobic activities – those that involve doing aerobic exercise on your feet, with your bones supporting your weight – are good,’ says Julia Thomson, an osteoporosis nurse at the National Osteoporosis Society ( or phone 0845 2300 450).

‘Examples include walking, dancing, low-impact aerobics, using elliptical (cross) training machines and climbing stairs,’ says Julia. ‘These types of exercises work directly on the bones in your legs, hips and lower spine to slow bone loss.

‘Team sports such as netball, basketball, football; racket sports such as squash, tennis and badminton; and impact dancing, such as line or tap, are also good weight-bearing exercises,’ Julia adds.

‘Exercising to music has proved successful for improving bone density as it usually includes weight bearing movement and should include bouts of high-impact weight-bearing activity. If you are a member of a gym, then high-resistance weight training with resistance machines or free weights has been shown to have a positive impact.

‘Swimming or cycling do have many benefits, but they’re not weight-bearing and do not have the impact to influence bone strength.

As you get older, just keeping active to maintain balance and muscle strength does seem to make fractures caused by osteoporosis much less likely. If you’ve been told your bone density is low though, talk to your doctor before commencing any high-impact exercise.’

When bones are not top-notch…
You run the risk of developing one of the following conditions

A condition that causes your bones to become weak and more likely to break. These fractures are most common in the spine, wrist and hips but can affect other bones too. Approximately three million people in the UK are thought to have osteoporosis, and there are over 230,000 fractures each year as a result. Although commonly associated with post-menopausal women, osteoporosis can affect men, younger women and children. Smoking increases your risk, as does a poor diet and lifestyle. Coeliac disease and osteoporosis often go hand in hand because when coeliacs eat foods that contain gluten, the villi that line the small intestine are damaged. As a result, the nutrients in food (including calcium, and vitamins D and K, essential for healthy bones) cannot be absorbed properly.

These disorders are caused by insufficient levels of vitamin D in the body and cause bone pain, weakness and fractures. (Rickets is the name used when it occurs in children while osteomalacia is the term used for adults.) People in the UK who get little exposure to sunlight may have a vitamin D deficiency. Immigrants from Asia, particularly women and children, are at risk too, as are the elderly and housebound. Some people with intestinal problems, such as Crohn’s disease and cystic fibrosis may also become short of vitamin D, as do some patients with liver disease.

This article was first published in at home with Lorraine Kelly in April 2012. [Read the digital edition here]

Photograph: Getty Images

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