Although your genes determine your potential height and the strength of your skeleton, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can influence how healthy your bones are.
Regular exercise is essential. Australian adults are recommended to at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as cycling or fast walking) most days of the week. Weight-bearing exercise and resistance exercise (such as exercising with weights) are important in improving bone density and helping prevent osteoporosis.
If you've been diagnosed with osteoporosis or are new to exercise, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or specialist before you take up any new exercise activity, to make sure it's right for you.
Weight-bearing exercises are exercises where your feet and legs support your weight. High-impact weight-bearing exercises, such as running, skipping, dancing, aerobics and even jumping up and down on the spot, are all useful ways to strengthen your muscles, ligaments and joints. When exercising, wear footwear that provides your ankles and feet with adequate support, such as joggers or walking boots.
People over the age of 60 can also benefit from regular weight-bearing exercise. This can include brisk walking, keep-fit classes or a game of tennis. Swimming and cycling are not weight-bearing exercises.
Resistance exercises use muscle strength, where the action of the tendons pulling on the bones boosts bone strength. Examples include press-ups, weight lifting or using weight equipment at a gym. If you have recently joined a gym or have not been for a while, your gym will probably offer you an introduction. This involves being shown how to use all the equipment and recommended exercise techniques. If you are unsure how to use a piece of equipment or how to do an exercise, ask a gym instructor for help.
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones. Women and men aged 19 and over (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) are recommended to have 1,000 mg of calcium a day while women over 50 and men over 70 are recommended to have 1,300 mg a day. Calcium is found in a number of different foods including dairy foods, green leafy vegetables, and tofu.
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 500-600 mg of calcium per day. Talk to your doctor about whether you need a calcium supplement and what the right dose is for you.
Vitamin D is also important for bones and teeth as it helps your body to absorb calcium. Vitamin D can be found in eggs, milk and oily fish. However, most vitamin D is made in the skin in response to sunlight. 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, which state you are in and your lifestyle. Visit the Cancer Council website for more information on Vitamin D and sun exposure requirements.
Certain groups of people may be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D. These include people who may be housebound or particularly frail, people with a poor diet or who keep covered up in sunlight because they wear total sun block or adhere to a certain dress code and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are at risk of not getting enough vitamin D through your diet or lifestyle, you can take a vitamin D supplement. Talk to your doctor for more information.
Other lifestyle factors that can help prevent osteoporosis include:
- quitting smoking – cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis
- limiting your alcohol intake – the recommended daily limit is three to four units of alcohol for men and two to three units for women, although it is important to also avoid binge drinking.
Sources: Cancer Council Australia (Vitamin D, How much sun is enough?), Medical Journal of Australia (MJA Open, Volume 2 - Supplement 1), NHMRC - Nutrient Reference values (Calcium), NHS Choices, UK (Preventing osteoporosis), NPS MedicineWise (Balancing the benefits and risks of calcium supplements), Osteoporosis Australia (What Can I Do to Prevent Osteoporosis?, Clarifying the issues - Calcium, Vitamin D and Supplements)
Last reviewed: June 2015