Exercise and bone health

From our 40s onwards, our bones gradually lose their density as a natural part of ageing.

One in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 in the UK will break a bone, mainly because of osteoporosis. Exactly why this happens is still not fully understood.

Osteoporosis has no symptoms. The first clue may be seen if you have an X-ray for another reason, or if you fracture a bone.

Whether you have osteoporosis or just want to build strong bones for the future, there are several things you can do to maintain your bones.

Eat calcium-rich foods

Adults should eat at least 700mg of calcium a day, and 1,200mg if diagnosed with osteoporosis. You could get your daily intake by eating a yoghurt, a cheese sandwich, a handful of almonds and a spinach salad.

Get your sunshine quota

Your body needs vitamin D to help it absorb calcium. Vitamin D is found in oily fish, liver, fortified spreads and cereals, and egg yolks. Your body also makes its own vitamin D when you're exposed to sunshine.

Most people in the UK get enough vitamin D by spending 15 minutes in the sun two to three times a week. Generally, normal levels built up in the summer will be enough to last through the winter. 

Go easy on the protein

Excessive amounts of meat, cheese and protein make body acid, which drains the body of calcium and weakens bones. Keep your diet balanced.

Your meals should contain protein (meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds), fresh fruit and vegetables, and carbohydrates (bread, pasta, potatoes and rice).

Quit smoking

The more you smoke, the more likely you'll get osteoporosis. Get help quitting smoking for good.

Top calcium foods

  • low-fat yoghurt
  • milk
  • cheese
  • canned salmon
  • spinach or kale
  • nuts and seeds
  • tofu
  • dried fruit
  • flour
  • water

Cut out the salt

Salt is thought to speed up the body's loss of calcium. Most of us consume 9g of salt a day, but the recommended limit is 6g, which is just a teaspoonful. Don't add salt to your food and look at food labels to help you cut down.

Avoid foods that contain 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g of sodium) or more. Crisps, ham, cheese, cooking sauces and processed foods such as pies, pizza and soups are all high in salt.

Be active

Bones get stronger when you use them. The best way to strengthen them is to do at least five hours of weight-bearing exercise a week. This includes walking, running, dancing, golf, tennis or netball. It doesn't include cycling or swimming, although swimming is good for staying flexible.

Bones also benefit if you lift and carry things. Weight training is ideal, but carrying shopping, gardening and housework all count.

Drink sensibly

Alcohol, tea, coffee, cola and other fizzy drinks reduce the amount of calcium you absorb and weaken bones. Stick to the recommended amounts of alcohol, and swap your caffeine-fuelled drinks for water and diluted juice.

Maintain a healthy weight

Losing too much weight too fast under a crash diet can increase your risk of osteoporosis. The same is true if you're anorexic, or for women, if you're so thin that your periods have stopped.

Weight loss can cut the amount of oestrogen (a hormone that helps to protect your bones) in your body. If you need to lose weight, do it sensibly.

Playground for the over-60s

A group of over-60s talk about how using a playground designed especially for them has helped them stay active, social, confident and independent.

Media last reviewed: 06/09/2013

Next review due: 06/09/2015

Page last reviewed: 01/03/2014

Next review due: 01/03/2016

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

boy wonder said on 30 January 2014

I'm 58 and the BMI assessor wouldn't give me the option of clicking "very active". I "ramble" an average of 8 miles, cycle between 20 and 30 miles at a stretch, go to the gym, do yoga, t'ai chi, spinning twice a week and swim 1/2 mile once a week. Everyone I know in my age group is very active. I know people in their 70s who do what I do and go skiing. You need to update your view of what constitutes old age. Also I broke my leg, aged 54, and everyone, including my GP immediately made the assumption it was due to osteoporosis and wanted to give me awful drugs as a result. However, my orthopaedic surgeon was categoric that it had nothing to do with osteoporosis. I wish medical people would all stop generalising and judging us all by age.

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Pusia2 said on 25 January 2014

the info about osteoporosis is fine as far as it goes but it goes nowhere. My mother followed your advice and is now a doubled up old lady with osteoporosis. We need more. Where is the osteoporosis execise plan? You say weight bearing exercise is good - what exercise? Where is the plan for what to do in weight training? What about different plans for different lifestyles ( not everyone will want to do weights)? Very poor we need better advice than 'carry a few shopping bags a week'

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