How to improve your bone health
Updated August 2023 | 6 min read
Contributors Professor Robin Daly, Chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health; Carly Ryan, exercise physiologist
Words by Trudie McConnochie
There’s more to strong bones than drinking milk. Here are five surprising ways to improve your overall bone health.
Think strong bones and you probably think calcium. Think exercise and you probably think getting fit. But there’s a piece of the puzzle many of us are missing with this thinking and that is the bond between exercise and bone health.
Professor Robin Daly, Chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, says keeping bones healthy to avoid developing osteoporosis isn’t just about eating a calcium-rich diet. It’s also about staying active – and some forms of exercise beat others for bone health.
"I’m not sure people are fully aware that bone is a dynamic tissue," he says. "What’s different from other physiological systems is that bones love stress and strain. There are unique cells within bones called osteocytes that can actually communicate with each other and with other bone cells, telling them to respond and adapt when we load them."
A study by Prof Daly found that a combination of weight-bearing exercises, like dancing and resistance training, is most effective for building bone health.
"When we think about exercise, our motto tends to be ‘anything is better than nothing’ for health benefits. But if you really want to improve bone health, you do need to be more targeted in your approach," he says. "Weight-bearing exercises, like dancing, skipping, running, jumping and tennis, which load the lower limbs in particular, are really good for maintaining bone density."
These forms of resistance training target muscles, Prof Daly says, creating the positive stress and strain our bones love while strengthening them as we move around the court or dancefloor.
Foods that build strong bones
Nutrition is crucial too when it comes to bone health.
Calcium is essential to help build and maintain healthy bones, with as much as 99% of the body’s calcium found in our bones to give them strength and structure. According to the Australian dietary guidelines, it’s recommended we have two to four servings of calcium a day.
High calcium foods include:
- dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese
- green vegies like leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, kale and silverbeet
- tinned fish like tuna, sardines, salmon and rainbow trout
- beans including kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans, chickpeas and white beans
- nuts, including almonds, sesame seeds and Brazil nuts
- fruits like oranges, dried apricots and dried figs.
Healthy bones also need vitamin D for them to absorb calcium and stay strong. According to the Bone Health Foundation, children need vitamin D to build strong bones, whereas adults need it to keep their bones strong and healthy.
The best source of vitamin D is safe sun exposure. All you need to do is step out into the sunshine for a few minutes each day. While vitamin D isn’t found in many foods, it can be sourced through vitamin tablets or various foods like:
- fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon
- fortified foods with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk and cereals
- beef liver
- egg yolks.
Protein is also essential for bone health as it helps growth, as well as preserving bone and muscle mass with aging. As you get older, protein plays a critical role as it helps strengthen bones, which can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, muscle weakness, sarcopenia (the decline of skeletal muscle tissue with age), and frailty, which all contribute to an increased risk of falling.
Foods high in protein include:
- lean meat
- dairy products
- nuts, grains and seeds
- legumes like kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas
- soy products like tofu.
Why exercise is important for our bones
Exercise physiologist Carly Ryan says bones adapt to exercise over time, so you need to mix up your routine every six to eight weeks or increase the load progressively, with heavier weights, for example.
It’s also important to get moving. The Australian Government recommends Aussies aged 18 to 64 do two-and-a-half hours to five hours of moderate activity, or one hour to two-and-a-half hours of vigorous activity a week, plus resistance training at least two days a week.
For those over 65, at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days is recommended, along with a range of strength, balance and flexibility exercises.
"If you follow those [recommendations], there’s a really good chance you’ll meet most of your needs in terms of maintaining bone density," says Carly. "Moderate intensity is something that’s going to get your heart rate up, and have you huffing and puffing just a little bit. If you want the bone-density benefits, go with weight-bearing exercises within that 150 minutes."
Weight-bearing exercises include:
If you have osteoporosis, a hip fracture, a vertebral fracture, low vertebral bone density or other medical condition, it’s important you modify your physical activity with the help of a health expert to make sure it’s safe for you.
5 exercises that help improve your bone health
Not only is dancing great for muscles and mojo, it also builds flexibility and balance, Carly says.
"There are lots of different movements involved, which makes it a good way to challenge the bones. It’s not just moving in a straight line – you’re twisting and moving, and you might even jump, depending on the type of dancing."
From contemporary and Latin to swing and Zumba, find local dance classes online or through community groups, or try barre classes, inspired by ballet, yoga and Pilates.
The best thing about walking is that most people can get into it and you can start with as little as 5km a week.
Carly says: "If you’ve never been physically active, or haven’t been for a long time, walking is an excellent place to start. As long as you’re walking regularly, it’ll be really helpful. As your bones learn to adjust, it’s a good idea to do other kinds of activities as well – so add a bit of stair-climbing or resistance training."
Locking in regular walk-and-talk dates with a friend gives you the motivation to keep up the habit.
- Using the stairs
It’s an oldie but still a goodie, stair-climbing targets at-risk parts of your skeleton.
"We find, particularly in women, loss of bone density seems to happen in the spine, the hips and the femur [thigh bone]," Carly says. "When you go up stairs, the impact is happening through your legs, hips and spine. Resistance in those areas will improve or maintain bone density."
Make it a habit to tackle stairs anywhere you find them, at work, the shops or better still, build them into your training walks or runs.
The bone perks you get from hiking depend on your terrain.
"As a general physical activity, hiking is fantastic," says Carly. "We know that gradients are good – going down and up hills does require a little bit more impact, so that’s always a really good thing [for bones]."
Why not discover the best bushwalking tracks in your area to colour your walk with the local flora and fauna?
- Lifting weights
Dumbbells and resistance bands are Carly’s best picks for weight-lifting equipment.
"They’re cheap, portable pieces of equipment that are really versatile and see fantastic results," she says. "Do upper-body resistance work in particular, like bicep curls, shoulder presses and rows, to try to work major muscle groups like your chest, back and shoulders." Aim for two to three times a week, she adds.
You can buy your own resistance bands or dumbbells, then look to the web for guidance through a program of weight-bearing exercises.
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