Osteoporosis: Are you headed for a fall?

Written by Betsy Kreuter

There is a misconception that bone loss is something that concerns only the elderly when nothing could be further from the truth. 

Children and teens experience the most rapid increase in bone mass during the formative years, as long as they are physically active and have balanced diets.  By the age of 17, however, a person’s bone density is at its peak and the pace of new bone growth starts to slow down, gradually leading to weaker bones.  Because the bone disease osteoporosis is at first painless and develops over a long period of time, sometimes decades, most people don’t realize their bones have become brittle until they experience a break or fracture from a minor fall or sometimes, just a sneeze.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that by the age of 50, one-half of all women and one in four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis. That’s why it’s crucial to develop health habits that promote and protect strong bones. While it’s best to protect your bones from an early age, it’s never too late to make a few lifestyle changes to help reduce bone degeneration.

Diet, lifestyle, gender and genetics all play a role in a person’s risk to develop osteoporosis. While people cannot choose their own sex at birth or their parents, making adjustments to the factors that can be controlled helps diminish the danger. We know that proper nutrition is a key component to overall health, for instance, and eating foods rich in calcium and vitamin D are known to benefit bones.  

Regular exercise is equally important. Bone strengthening activities not only build muscles and endurance, they trigger new bone tissue to form and maintain the density, or thickness, of bones. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of daily activity, which can be done all at once or at intervals throughout the day, focusing on increasing strength, flexibility and balance.

Even if you have never been particularly active, there are simple exercises you can do in your home and around your neighborhood to help your body build healthy bones. In most cases, a combination of nonimpact, low-impact and weight-bearing exercises is recommended. These include walking and using an elliptical machine. Muscle-strengthening exercises, also known as resistance exercises, can be accomplished by lifting hand weights, using elastic exercise bands or lifting your own body weight with push-ups, lunges and rising up on your toes while standing.  Nonimpact exercises can help improve your posture and balance, which decreases the risk of falls and broken bones. These can be done by simply balancing on one leg and then the other, or taking up practices such as tai chi or yoga. 

If you are new to exercise, or have been relatively sedentary for a period of time, start out slowly until you establish balance, holding on the back of a chair or a countertop if you need support.  Gradually make each exercise more challenging by increasing the repetitions, moving unsupported for longer periods of time or at an accelerated pace, or increasing the weight of the objects you are lifting. 

As with any new exercise program, always consult with your physician about what is right for your individual condition. 

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