Our bones do some pretty amazing things but if you don’t take proper care of them, you could be putting your health at risk.
As well as providing structure and support for the rest of our body, they also protect our organs, assist with movement, and store minerals. In addition, the bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside the bones) makes around 200 billion new blood cells every day, including red and white blood cells, and platelets.
Our body contains 206 bones, which start forming before we’re born. Good bone health begins in childhood and continues throughout adolescence, with peak bone mass occurring in our early 20s. This means our bones are the strongest and most dense they will ever be at this point in our life. The stronger and denser they are, the less likely they are to weaken and fracture later on.
Osteoporosis—‘the silent disease’
One of the most common bone diseases is osteoporosis. Affecting around one million Australians, this condition is characterised by exaggerated loss of bone mass. People with osteoporosis are at a higher risk of a fracture (complete or partial break) in the bone.
The most commonly affected bones include the hip, spine and wrist, although any other is also at risk. Fractures are obviously painful, but they can also lead to chronic pain, loss of independence, or even disability.
Osteoporosis is often called ‘the silent disease’, as there are usually no symptoms until a fracture occurs.
Three cornerstones of bone health
As we age, our bones naturally tend to lose some of their mineral content, and become more porous and weak. However, it’s never too late to start taking care of your bones to improve their overall health. Good bone health is based on three key elements:
- Sunshine (vitamin D).
Strong bones need calcium
Calcium is a building block for bones and teeth, and is essential for maintaining bone strength. While almost 99 per cent of the calcium in our body is found in our bones, a small amount is absorbed into the blood, to be used for other bodily functions.
It’s very important to include adequate amounts of calcium in your diet, otherwise your body draws upon calcium stores in the bones to use in other parts of the body. If this continues, you run the risk of reducing your bone density, therefore increasing your risk for osteoporosis.
The best sources of calcium are dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. Other sources include calcium-fortified cereals and drinks, canned fish eaten with the bones, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and tofu.
Exercise strengthens bones
Exercise is important to maintain or increase bone density. However, to have a proper impact, a routine must be regular and ongoing—which means you need to make it part of your lifestyle.
The most effective exercises for increasing bone strength include:
- Weight-bearing exercise (anything that forces you to work against gravity)— walking, jogging, stair-climbing, jumping, dancing, and activities involving these actions, such as aerobics, tennis, basketball, netball, etc.
- Progressive resistance training — lifting weights, weight machines, or using hand or ankle weights. These should become more challenging over time.
Don’t forget the sunshine
Strong bones need sunshine. Well, technically, bones need the vitamin D produced when we’re exposed to UVB radiation from sunlight. Vitamin D is important as it:
- Aids calcium absorption in the body
- Assists the body to regulate calcium levels
- Supports the growth and maintenance of bones.
As Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer, it’s important to balance your need for sunlight exposure with the risk of skin cancer. Recommended sun exposure times vary according to season, where you live, skin type, and the amount of skin exposed.
Despite living in a ‘sunburnt country’, more than 30 per cent of Australian adults are deficient in vitamin D. The best way to check your levels is through a blood test, which your doctor can order. If you are deficient, you may benefit from taking a supplement.
We often don’t think about our bones until something goes wrong. However, you can significantly reduce the risk of that happening, by taking good care of them.