Mind-Body Health

3 Ways to Strengthen Your Bones

3 Ways to Strengthen Your Bones
A meaningful yoga sutra reads Sthira sukham asanum. This Sanskrit phrase translates to “steadiness and ease within posture.” The movement portion of yoga, asana, focuses on building a strong foundation—an aligned, steady body, which only then is capable of fluid and easy movement.

The bones are your most basic element of structure and stability. Not only do bones create the framework for your muscles, but they also:

  • Help regulate your blood calcium and phosphate levels. Both calcium and phosphate are stored in the bones and can be released into the bloodstream as needed to maintain healthy mineral levels. This is important because if the serum (blood) concentration of calcium is too low for normal body functions to take place, it will pull calcium from the bones, leading to bone demineralization (a fancy term for loss of bone density).
  • Protect internal organs. Think of the ribs: they provide a “cage” to protect the heart and lungs.
Bones may look like inert, stone-like objects, but this could not be further from the truth. Bones are living, porous tissue. Up close, they look less like a smooth rock and more like a sponge. Bone composition is not constant, as bones are constantly forming and breaking down.

The likelihood of poor bone health later in life depends on your bone health around age 30 and also how quickly your bone density is then lost. Poor bone health is often a silent condition. Most people with poor bone health will not feel symptoms until they experience a fracture. Some individuals with large bone loss will suffer from osteoporosis—a condition in which the bones are weak, brittle, and more prone to breaks.

Interested in keeping your bones healthy? The following are steps you can take to ensure excellent bone health, up to age 30 and beyond.

1. Lead an Active Lifestyle

Just like muscles, your bones need exercise to stay healthy and strong. And when it comes to bone health, any amount of activity helps. When you move, muscles push and pull on your bones, which makes them stronger. The National Osteoporosis Foundation focuses on the benefits of two types of exercise:

1. Muscle-Strengthening Exercises: Muscle-strengthening exercises involve moving your body against resistance. This force can be a weight, or just gravity. Examples of muscle-strengthening exercises include:

  • Weightlifting
  • Using resistance bands
  • Exercising against gravity, such as leg lifts and sit-ups. Yoga and Pilates incorporate these types of exercises.
2. Weight-Bearing Exercises: Weight-bearing exercises involve moving while standing on your feet, working against the force of gravity. The load or weight on your bones triggers specialized cells to build bone. Weight-bearing exercises include:

  • Walking or jogging
  • Dancing
  • Tennis
  • Stair climbing

2. Avoid Tobacco and Limit Alcohol

It is no secret that drinking alcohol and smoking lead to a variety of negative health consequences. It should come as no surprise, then, that both these practices are also associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Possible reasons for this association include:

  • Those who abuse alcohol and smoke tobacco may be less likely to consume foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein needed for bone health.
  • Those who smoke tobacco tend to have lower body weight. Thinness and frailty are associated with a higher risk of osteoporosis.
  • Substance abusers tend to get less physical activity than people who don’t abuse substances.
  • Women who smoke tobacco tend to have earlier menopause. After reaching menopause, bone demineralization increases in women due to hormonal changes.

3. Consume Sufficient Calcium and Vitamin D

Getting enough calcium and vitamin D is important for maintaining bone health.

The National Institutes of Health recommends the following:

  • Men and women ages 19–50: 1000 mg/day calcium and 600 IU/day vitamin D
  • Women ages 51–70: 1200 mg/day* calcium and 600 IU/day vitamin D
  • Men ages 51–70: 1000 mg/day calcium and 600 IU/day vitamin D
  • Men and women >70: 1200 mg/day calcium, 800 IU/day vitamin D
*Calcium recommendations are higher for women ages 51–70 than for men in the same age range because post-menopausal hormone changes lead to faster bone loss.

Healthy sources of calcium and vitamin D include:

  • Green leafy vegetables (e.g., broccoli, brussels sprouts, mustard greens, kale)
  • Chinese cabbage or bok choy
  • Beans/legumes
  • Corn tortillas (the corn is processed with calcium)
  • Sardines/salmon with edible bones
  • Shrimp
  • Nuts/almonds
  • Calcium- and vitamin D–fortified foods and beverages such as orange juice, tofu, and non-dairy milks such as soy or almond (check the label to verify fortification)

Dairy: The Elephant in the Room

Dairy products include milk and foods made with milk such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and ice cream. While milk is high in calcium (1 cup of whole milk has 276 mg) and typically fortified with vitamin D (1 cup of whole milk has 97.6 IU), its intake is controversial.

In nature, dairy consumption is not a lifelong habit. For mammals living in the wild, milk consumption ends in early childhood. This example from nature leads some people to conclude that it’s best to avoid dairy later in life. While research on the health effects of consuming dairy is plentiful, the results are inconclusive. There are valid arguments for both sides of the debate—some believe dairy helps, while others find no benefit.

Dairy Pros

Dairy products offer an attractive calcium source due to several factors:

  • High calcium content: Three 8 oz. glasses of milk contain the daily recommended intake of calcium. It is harder to achieve the daily recommended intake with non-dairy foods. You need 5–6 servings of leafy vegetables to equal the calcium content of just one glass of milk.
  • Easy availability: Milk is found at almost any supermarket or gas station, even in places considered to be food deserts (an area where fresh and healthy food is hard to find).
  • Affordability: Milk is one of the cheapest sources of protein and calcium available, leading to its inclusion in many government-assistance programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
  • Milk is easy to consume: Those with impaired chewing or swallowing (such as the sick or elderly) find it hard to consume adequate calcium and protein. Milk offers both these components in an easy-to-consume (i.e., liquid) package.

Dairy Cons

Despite the high calcium content of milk, scientific studies show inconsistent findings about whether an increased intake leads to better bone health.

  • One study published in JAMA Pediatrics found no correlation between milk intake in adolescence and risk of bone fracture later in life.
  • A meta-analysis reviewing nearly 40,000 men and women found inconclusive evidence for the benefits of dairy consumption. This review found that self-reported dairy consumption had no correlation with risk of hip fracture. These findings are further supported by many other leading health experts, including the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • Many people cannot digest lactose, a naturally-occurring sugar found in milk. According to the National Institutes of Health, 65 percent of the human population has trouble digesting lactose. For this majority of the population, dairy consumption leads to symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Unsure of Your Bone Health?

If you have reason to suspect that you may be at risk for osteoporosis, ask your physician about a bone scan. He or she will be able to advise you on the state of your bones, and offer suggestions for optimization.

While research on almost every area of nutrition is often inconclusive, one recommendation always rings true: consume a wide variety of foods, especially plant foods. And move your body! Choose physical activities that feel good to you. By navigating your daily choices while keeping in mind these two basic recommendations, you will help ensure that you maintain your own sthira and sukham—structure and ease—throughout your life.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.

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*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.