3 Ways to Support Bone Health

Diet and exercise are key for a stronger, healthier skeleton.

Photo: X-ray of chest and hands

To maintain healthy bones throughout life, there are three common practices we should all be following and unsurprisingly, they’re not far off from advice for living a healthy lifestyle. "Maintain a balanced diet with minimal processed foods, perform weight-bearing exercises, and don't smoke," says Len Schon, MD. Our bones protect our organs and muscles, store calcium (the most common nutrient in our bodies which promotes good vascular, nerve, and hormone health), and give our bodies structure and mobility.

Use these tips on what you should and shouldn't be doing to ensure that your skeleton stays strong and healthy throughout your life.

Eat for Your Bones
While it's common knowledge that vitamin D (there's an osteoporosis specific to a vitamin D deficiency, osteomalacia) and calcium are necessary for maintaining strong bones and preventing the onset of osteoporosis, navigating what proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to eat and whether you should be eating them at all is a bit more difficult. 

Proteins: Low-fat, high-quality proteins have been linked to the production of key “[bone] growth factors, increased mineral content, decreased risk of fracture, and increased fracture repair after injury,” report researchers from the University of Michigan. Protein is commonly known as a must for maintaining and building healthy muscles, but it's just as important for healthy bones. Strong muscles take weight off the bones and equally distribute stress, so healthy muscles mean a happy skeleton. Aim for a diet rich in low-fat proteins like turkey, tofu, and fish.

Fats: One of the easiest ways to overload your skeleton with too much stress is to put on weight, so maintaining a healthy, natural body weight throughout life is important. An increased intake of saturated fat leads to a lower bone mass density than that in those who consume less saturated fat, report researchers from Penn State University. But not all fats are bad. Omega-3 fatty acids can promote bone formation, reports the University of Michigan study. Walnuts and flax and chia seeds are natural sources of omega-3s that are easy to incorporate into everyday food items like smoothies or salads.

Carbohydrates: Simple carbohydrates, or sugar, are empty calories that greatly contribute to weight gain. Lessen the load on your bones by cutting unnecessary sugar from your diet. 

Calcium: To get your daily recommended value of calcium (1,000 mg), be sure to include milk, yogurt, and cheese in your diet. If you're dairy-free, kale, broccoli, and tofu are also great sources.

Exercise for Your Bones
Weight-bearing exercises are essential to maintaining and enhancing bone strength. "Physical activity is one of the strongest non-pharmacological means to develop and maintain healthy bone mass,” writes University of Michigan researcher Ron Zernicke, PhD. Although you can't see the difference, when you engage in weight-bearing exercise that puts stress on your bones, your body reacts by strengthening the bones with additional cells. If your bones are relatively healthy, try a high-impact exercise like jumping rope or running. Yoga, hiking, and strength training are also great weight-bearing options.

If you have brittle bones or have suffered from breaks or other injuries, low-impact exercise will strengthen the muscles supporting your bones and therefore relieve weight off your bones. Try swimming and cycling. 

Quit Smoking
Smoking isn't just bad for your lungs and heart health. "The fact that smoking can affect the healing of fractures or hamper recovery in certain orthopedic procedures is surprising to many patients," Dr. Schon says. Quitting won't be easy, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier.