Want your bones to carry you for years to come? You can do a lot to ensure that they do. Three tools are at your disposal to build bone strength and fend off osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease. The first is weight-bearing exercise, including walking, running, aerobic dance and weight training. The second is nutrition. A third tool, prescription medication, is available to postmenopausal women. Talk to your Ob/Gyn to find out more.
The most important nutrient for your bones is calcium, a mineral that keeps them hard. But your body needs calcium for other reasons, too. Calcium helps your heart beat and your blood clot. It’s important to every cell in the body because it helps maintain cell membranes. If your body doesn’t get enough calcium to do those jobs, it takes it from your bones.
How much calcium is enough? A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health issued the recommendations listed in the accompanying box, “How Much Calcium Do You Need?” In general, women who are younger than 25, pregnant, breastfeeding or postmenopausal need more calcium than other women. Be aware that more than 2,000 milligrams per day can cause constipation and increase the risk of urinary tract infection.
If you think drinking milk is the only way to get calcium, think again. Lots of other foods contain this important mineral, including other dairy products, fortified cereals, broccoli, salmon and sardines with bones. (See “Foods You Can Eat to Get Your Daily Dose of Calcium.”)
Equally important is vitamin D, which your bones need to absorb calcium from the intestines into the bloodstream. The Daily Value (the amount of a given vitamin or mineral the government recommends we consume in a day) for vitamin D is 200 international units up to age 50 and 400 thereafter. Most likely, you get enough of this vitamin in your diet, especially if you drink milk or eat cold cereals, which are fortified with it. In addition, your skin makes vitamin D every time it’s exposed to sunlight. Massive doses of this vitamin can be harmful.
Salt, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided because they have negative effects on calcium. Salt and caffeine pull calcium into the kidneys and intestines, where it’s excreted. Alcohol makes it more difficult for your body to use calcium. Smoking cigarettes also damages bones. In fact, some experts blame the increase in female smokers over the past 30 years for a rise in the number of bone fractures among older women today.
Following the guidelines in this article will help keep your bones strong so that you can stay active throughout life. To sum up: If you smoke, quit; drink alcohol only in moderation; go easy on salt and caffeine; and boost your calcium intake to the recommended level.