They may seem solid, but the 206 bones of our skeleton are living tissues that are constantly changing and are as essential to health as the heart and other vital organs. But while we’re pretty clued up on how to stay heart healthy, we’re far less savvy about our bones.
‘Many people take their skeleton for granted, even after a fracture, perhaps because a broken bone is often less dramatic than a heart attack,’ observes Nicholas Harvey, professor of rheumatology and clinical epidemiology, at the University of Southampton.
He adds, ‘Over the past 30 years, we’ve made huge advances in tackling osteoporosis – literally porous bones, which lead to increased risk of bone breaks or fractures – but there is much left to do.’ Osteoporosis affects more than three million of us in the UK, three-and-a-half times the number affected by dementia. Yet, he says, ‘in many areas, less than half of those at high risk of fracture get treatment.’
This is something the Royal Osteoporosis Society is determined to change. It has recently launched a ground-breaking new research initiative, the Osteoporosis and Bone Research Academy, of which Professor Harvey is vice-chair, to work towards putting an end to the scourge of osteoporosis. ‘We want to learn more about what causes osteoporosis, how best to identify those at high risk and discover new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat it,’ he explains.
But you don’t have to wait for research findings. Small, simple lifestyle changes can strengthen bones and help arm you against osteoporosis.
Saga Health Insurance gives you control of your own healthcare needs, and peace of mind you’ll receive prompt treatment. Find out more about our cover.
Hop, skip and jump
Contrary to previous advice, if you have lower than average bone density – something called osteopenia – you should usually be more, not less, active. ‘Activities that “load” bones – think brisk walking, jogging, skipping, dancing, football, tennis and netball or even simply jumping – trigger messenger chemicals that stimulate bone formation,’ explains Professor Harvey.
Unused to exercise? Start slowly and build up gradually. ‘As you get fitter, add some jogs or jumps into your walk,’ suggests Sarah Leyland, specialist nurse consultant at the Royal Osteoporosis Society. Build up to 50 jogging steps or jumps daily. Ramp things up by carrying heavy shopping, loading up a rucksack or wearing a weighted jacket. Aim for two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) of aerobic exercise (such as walking and jumping) a week.
If you’ve had a spinal fracture, previous fractures or very low bone density or other medical conditions have been diagnosed, discuss what’s safe to do with your GP.
10 ways to get stronger bones
Weight for it
High-impact resistance activities such as lifting weights used to be considered a no-no for anyone with osteopenia or osteoporosis. But the new Australian LIFTMOR trial shows that for many post-menopausal women who are affected, high-intensity resistance and impact training can improve bone density, structure and strength. A study is now planned in men. Press-ups, squats, resistance bands, Pilates, yoga, free weights or weights machines at a gym may all fit the bill. Aim for two or three resistance sessions a week. (Some people with bone-health issues may need to get the all-clear from a healthcare professional or qualified trainer.)
Good balance is vital to keep us steady on our feet to avoid the falls that can lead to broken bones. Standing on one leg while you clean your teeth, balance boards, Bosu balls, yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi and even, if you are otherwise fit, activities such as stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), can help improve balance. Of course, these activities may cause falls, so again take advice about how to get started.
Off balance? Find your feet with these tips
Calcium (700mg a day) along with vitamin D, which helps our bodies absorb calcium, is vital for healthy bones. Find calcium in dairy, nuts, seeds, pulses, dried fruit, green leafy veg, tofu and fish with edible bones, such as sardines and whitebait.
Vitamin D is produced by the action of sunlight on skin. But the sun is too low in the sky between October and April, so consider a daily supplement (400IU/10mcg) during these months, or all year round if you are 65-plus, have darker skin or get little or no sun.
Whole-body vibration plates to build muscle strength are a familiar sight in gyms. However, they are too intense for those with fragile bones. Try low-intensity vibration therapy (LiV) instead, which specifically targets bone cells. You stand on a device, a bit like bathroom scales, that gently vibrates at the precise level needed to stimulate bone-building. Research shows this helps boost bone formation and slows resorption of bone.
Lost height or broken a bone?
Loss of height or an increasingly curved spine can be signs of spinal fractures. If you are over 50, breaking a bone following a minor knock or fall from standing height could be a sign of osteopenia or osteoporosis. You should get a bone health check and a falls risk assessment within 90 days. You may be referred to an NHS Fracture Liaison Service. If not, make an appointment with your GP.
Need to know
Bones are a complex mixture of calcium and other minerals bound together with collagen and various proteins.
Throughout our lives bone tissue is constantly renewed.
Bones reach their peak at around 30 years, after which they gradually lose density and strength as bone breakdown exceeds bone build-up.
Bone loss accelerates at midlife in women due to the loss of bone-friendly oestrogen at menopause, and declines in both men and women with age.
It’s not known why bones decline as we age, but research suggests it may be due to excess ‘senescent’ bone cells that have reached the end of their life but refuse to die, so block the formation of new cells.
More ways to help prevent osteoporosis
Known in the 1980s for her mantra ‘wake up and shake up’, BBC Breakfast TV’s Green Goddess, Diana Moran, now 80, reveals how she cares for her bones. ‘As a lifelong exerciser, I was disappointed to learn I had osteopenia. But at my age and after treatment for breast cancer, which can deplete bone, I wasn’t totally surprised.
‘Breakfast is homemade muesli, nuts, blueberries or raspberries, a banana, low-fat milk and yogurt; lunch is soup or a fish sandwich and salad; dinner is usually fish and vegetables. I take a calcium and vitamin D tablet, plus a magnesium supplement.
‘I also use a portable LiV machine, Marodyne LiV, which I stand on for ten minutes. It’s a gentle vibrating sensation – more of a purr than a roar – that stimulates bone- cell formation. Happily, since taking these steps my bones have now stabilised.’
Diana Moran is an ambassador for the Royal Osteoporosis Society
Find out more
The Royal Osteoporosis Society, theros.org.uk or call 0808 800 0035 for information on all aspects of bone health.
Vitamin D3 50 Plus (£13.95, healthspan.co.uk) for the over-50s.
This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Saga Magazine.
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