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It’s an all-too-common scenario: A senior with a hip fracture or broken wrist from a fall. And while a younger person may not understand how detrimental a broken bone is for older adults, that stats don’t lie. A study published in Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2018 found that “older people with broken bones face a higher risk of death, and that risk can stay elevated for years.”
Increased risk of mortality is just one reason why bone health becomes such an important topic as we age. “Bones provide structure and scaffolding for the muscles’ attachments and give protection for our organs,” explains physical therapist Dr. Lara Heimann, DPT, who created LYT Yoga. “The healthy structure of bones is crucial for healthy movement as the muscles that move us connect to and pull on the bones. Bones also store minerals such as calcium and release our supply of calcium for different functions in the cells. So, if our bones are weakened, they have a harder job supporting the pull from muscles and are more likely to sustain fractures.”
What happens when we start losing bone density?
According to Dr. Heimann, in our younger years, our bones are building their density. But once we enter adulthood, the rate of building bones slows down, and we begin to lose bone density if we don’t work to rebuild the bone loss.
“The skeleton remodels itself every 10 years, removing old pieces of bone and replacing with new bone tissue,” she explains. “In healthy adults, the amount of bone lost and replaced is about the same, but as we age, the remodeling bony matrix process might change in this balance, leading to loss of bone structure, strength, and integrity, with an increased propensity of diseases like osteopenia and osteoporosis.”
Hormonal changes and poor nutrition can further bone loss, as hormones are a key factor in maintaining bone health. Women going through menopausal changes are especially vulnerable to bone loss.
And as with most health conditions, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “It is very difficult to re-establish bone density once lost,” says Dr. Barbara Bergin, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics in Austin, Texas. “And it certainly cannot be done naturally, by just increasing calcium intake, or doing a little weightlifting. A multifaceted approach, which usually includes medications, is required to reverse these changes.”
7 tips for keeping your bones strong
It’s never too late to start making some lifestyle changes that could improve your bone health long term. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Keeping an eye on the scale puts less stress on your bones and makes movement easier and more enjoyable, says Dr. Heimann: “People who are overweight tend to not move as much, which can lead to impaired bone quality and a higher risk of falling. Underweight individuals are at greater risk of bone loss, so find the balance in your weight to keep you healthy and mobile.”
- Stopping smoking and limiting alcohol. Smoking has long been associated with increased bone loss because nicotine inhibits bone-forming cells. Similarly, heavy drinking is linked to osteoporosis because alcohol interferes with the balance of calcium.
- Adding supplements. Supplement the known minerals that help with building bone. Dr. Heimann suggests vitamin D (with K2, which helps with the binding of osteocalcin to minerals), calcium and magnesium, which play a role in converting vitamin D into the active form that promotes calcium absorption.
- Getting exposure to sunlight. Our bodies can make vitamin D through exposure to the sun. But doing so while simultaneously protecting skin from excess UV light is a delicate balance to keep in mind.
- Eating a nutrient-rich diet. Seek out foods that are rich in magnesium, calcium, zinc, and vitamins D, K, and A — all of these are necessary for bone metabolism. Vegetables provides some of the best sources of vitamin C, which stimulates the production of bone-forming cells. The antioxidants in vitamin C may also protect the bone cells from oxidative stress and damage. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna are especially good sources of vitamin D.
- Doing weight-bearing exercises. Strength building and weight-bearing exercises help to build strong bones. “High-impact exercise in the form of plyometrics or running promotes the formation of new bone, so get bouncing,” says Dr. Heimann. “Yoga and movement that takes you through a variety of ranges of motion are excellent for minimizing stress to the bones.”
- Exploring hormone replacement therapy. “Consider bio-identical hormone replacement during perimenopause and menopause to replace the declining or absent hormones that are essential for bone building,” says Dr. Heimann.
It’s time to get moving
Exercise can directly lead to improvements within bone health, says physical therapist Jim Basque, PT, DPT, a physical therapist with Texas Orthopedics. “Weight-bearing exercises create cycles of reactions in the body that stimulate osteoblastic activity (bone growing elements) and growth hormone that aid in bone formation and creation,” he explains. He recommends walking on flat, level ground, and doing balancing exercises, such as standing on one leg and doing step-ups on a stable surface. For those who love to lift, anytime you pick up weights or do bodyweight moves (such as pushups, planks, squats, lunges or pull-ups), you’re automatically building your bone health.
If yoga is more your speed, you’re in luck. Yoga incorporates weight-bearing movements that have been proven to increase bone strength and density. Additionally, yoga can lessen your chances of suffering from a fall that could result in a broken bone by improving balance and flexibility.
“Yoga poses create small amounts of stress on the bones because you are resisting gravity as you hold yourself up, which causes the bones to react and stimulate new bone growth, improving your bone density over time,” says yoga and meditation teacher Kelly Smith, E-RYT 500/YACEP, founder of Yoga For You and host of the Mindful in Minutes podcast.
Below, Smith shares a simple weight-bearing and balance-focused flow that is great for bone health. If you are worried about balance, set up near a wall so you can keep a hand on it for extra stability and make sure your space is free from hazards.