From your 30s onwards, our bones gradually lose their density as a natural part of ageing.
Osteoporosis is a condition that affects the bones, causing them to become weak and fragile and more likely to break (fracture). It has no symptoms so the first clue may be that 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
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones. Most people need at least 3 serves of calcium rich food a day. A serving size is a glass of milk (250ml), tub of yoghurt (200g) or a slice of cheese (40g).
If you can't get the recommended amount of calcium from your diet you may need to take a calcium supplement, particularly if you have low bone density. Osteoporosis Australia recommends taking a maximum of 500mg to 600mg of calcium per day. Talk to your doctor about whether you need a calcium supplement and what the right dose is for you.
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.
To produce enough vitamin D, most Australians only need a few minutes a day of sunlight during summer and a couple of hours of sun exposure spread over the week while during winter. The amount of exposure to sunlight needed depends on your skin type (darker skin requires longer exposure), the time of year, where you live and your lifestyle. Overexposure to sunlight can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Visit the Cancer Council website for more information on vitamin D and safe sun exposure requirements.
Eat a balanced diet
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).
The more you smoke, the more likely you'll get osteoporosis. Aim to cut down or, better still, quit smoking altogether. A great place to start is to check out the Department of Health website or call the Quitline on 13 7848.
The My QuitBuddy app is a personalised interactive app that provides helpful tips and distractions to overcome cravings, tracking systems to chart your progress and the facts to help you understand the impact smoking has on your health.
Cut out salt
Salt is thought to speed up the body's loss of calcium. So try to limit your daily salt intake to the recommended amount. Australian adults are recommended to consume is less 2000mg of sodium a day — that’s less than a teaspoon of salt.
Try not to add salt to your food, flavouring with herbs or a squeeze of lemon juice can be a good substitute.
Looking at nutrition labels can also help you reduce your salt intake. Look for foods with 120mg sodium or less per 100g. Crisps, ham, cheese, cooking sauces and processed foods such as pies, pizza and soups are all high in salt.
Bones get stronger when you use them. A great way to strengthen them is with weight-bearing exercise. This includes walking, running, dancing, golf or tennis. 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. If you are new to exercise it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before you take up any new exercise activity, to make sure it's right for you.
Alcohol, tea, coffee, cola and other soft drinks reduce the amount of calcium you absorb, and weaken bones. Stick to the recommended amounts of alcohol, and swap your caffeine-fueled drinks for water.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being underweight is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
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).
Being underweight can affect the amount of oestrogen (a hormone that helps to protect your bones) in your body. If you need to lose weight, do it sensibly.
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Last reviewed: September 2020