Although your genes help determine your potential height and the strength of your skeleton, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can influence how healthy your bones are — and your risk of osteoporosis.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a condition that makes bones weak, fragile and more likely to break (fracture).
Osteoporosis develops slowly over several years. There are often no warning signs for osteoporosis until someone experiences a fracture, usually after a minor fall.
Regular exercise is essential for strengthening bones. It’s recommended that Australian adults do at least 2 and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity — such as cycling or fast walking — every week.
Weight-bearing exercise and resistance exercise, such as working with weights, are important for improving bone density and helping prevent osteoporosis. You should do muscle-strengthening exercises on at least 2 days a week.
If you've been diagnosed with osteoporosis or are new to exercise, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before you take up any new activity to ensure 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 and aerobics 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 sneakers or hiking boots.
People over the age of 60 benefit immensely from regular weight-bearing exercise. This can include brisk walking, group-fitness classes or tennis. While great for your cardiovascular fitness, 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, lifting free weights or using weights machines at a gym.
If you recently joined a gym or haven't been for a while, your gym will probably offer you an induction. Staff will show you how to use the equipment and recommend exercise techniques tailored to your needs. If you're unsure of 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 advised to have 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Women over 50 and men over 70 should aim to have 1,300mg 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 (osteopaenia). Osteoporosis Australia recommends getting as much calcium as possible from your diet alone. But if you need a supplement, it recommends a dose of 500-600mg of calcium per day.
If you are concerned about your calcium intake, 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, during winter. The amount of sunlight you need depends on your skin type — darker skin requires longer exposure — the time of year, which region you're in and your lifestyle. Visit the Cancer Council website for more information on vitamin D and sun-exposure guidelines.
Certain groups of people may be at risk of not getting enough vitamin D, including people who:
- are housebound or particularly frail
- have a poor diet
- always cover up completely in sunlight
- 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. Ask your doctor for more information.
Other lifestyle factors
Other lifestyle factors that can help prevent osteoporosis include:
- Quitting smoking — smoking cigarettes is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.
- Limiting your alcohol intake — the recommended daily limit is no more than 4 standard drinks on any day. It is important to also avoid 'binge' drinking.
- Maintaining a healthy weight — research suggests that low body weight can increase the risk of osteoporosis.
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Last reviewed: October 2020