Three Strategies for Strong Bones

Three Strategies for Strong Bones

It’s easy to ignore the health of your bones when you’re young, strong, and lean. It’s normal to get more caught up with body composition and belly fat than long-term bone health.

But this can backfire drastically, especially if you are genetically at risk for weak bone or practice behaviors that decrease bone mineral density. Don’t worry! Embracing dietary and training behaviors that build strong bones from an early age will help you achieve the optimal body composition and best health status as well.

Why You Should Care about Your Bones

Bones are made up of living tissue, and scientists estimate that a skeleton is completely rebuilt as many as 12 times over a lifespan. Bones are continually breaking down and then remodeling or rebuilding. When you are young, you form new bone much faster than you lose it. You reach peak bone mineral density between age 25 to 30, at which point you lose bone more rapidly than you gain it.

For women the rate of loss accelerates even more immediately after menopause when estrogen levels drop sharply. Men suffer from gradual bone loss as testosterone and related androgen hormones decline. By age 65, men and women lose bone at the same rate. Women are just at greater risk for osteoporosis (defined as severely low bone mineral density) because they have already lost a significant amount of bone by age 65.

Osteoporosis and poor bone mineral density significantly affect men as well as women. In fact, men are much more likely to die within 6 months of fracturing a bone than women. Here are some statistics:

  • At least 25 percent of men and 33 percent of women will suffer an osteoporotic fracture during their lifetime.
  • The most common fracture is in the forearm, followed by the hip and spine.
  • About 25 percent of all hip fractures occur in men and their mortality rate from this type of fracture is much higher than in women.
  • Twenty percent of women die within 12 months of fracturing a hip. More than 30 percent of men do.
  • In 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General estimated that 10 million people over age 50 have osteoporosis and another 33.6 million have low bone mass and are on their way to developing osteoporosis.
What To Do To Protect Your Bones

To protect your bones, you need both a “bone bank account” AND to continually deposit bone as you age with the right lifestyle habits. Bone is like muscle tissue, and you can continually train and rebuild it as you age, but bone is harder to build than muscle, which is the reason it is so important you bank bone as a child and young adult. To do this, combine the best strength training program with the optimal diet and supplementation—the good news is you’ll find this method to be very similar to what I would suggest for achieving the optimal body composition!

Strategy #1: Strength Train Heavy and Load the Spine

Research shows that the best strategy for increasing bone mineral density for both genders is to strength train. Both men and women can build the strongest bones by performing a heavy traditional strength training program and doing weight bearing activity that loads the spine with high loads. For example, a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research outlines a reliable way to build bone over a lifetime.

The study presented two competitive female senior powerlifters who had trained with heavy lifts for over 30 years. The bone mineral density of both women was far above that achieved by young women at age 25 when bone strength peaks.

The subjects included a 48-year-old powerlifter whose primary lifts were the squat, bench press, and deadlift. She typically performed 70 percent of her training lifts near the maximum weight possible. The second woman was 54 years old and also primarily trained the traditional powerlifts of squat, deadlift, and bench press, with approximately 75 percent of her lifts near maximal. Both participants had been lifting for over 30 years. Bone scans showed that they both had bones that were much stronger than the norms for their gender and age

Related studies suggest that women will build the strongest bones by starting to strength train at a young age and continuing throughout their lifetime, while being as physically active as possible. For example, shorter term studies indicate that a variety of strength training protocols appear to halt bone loss as women age, or provide a small increase in bone mineral density in younger women, but gains are not impressive. You have to “bank” your bone early on and keep it strong—coming from behind doesn’t work, although it does keep you from losing more bone.

Men have better results with building bone strength from short-term training programs.

For example, a 6-month study that had college-age men and women perform a training protocol that included bench press, squats, and deadlifts with a load of 67 to 95 percent of the 1RM produced a significant gain in bone mineral density in the men of 3 to 7.7 percent. The women gained about 1 percent in bone mineral density, indicating that strength training can delay bone loss.

Really, there’s no downside to this strategy since regular training and a high volume of daily weight bearing physical activity will give you the best body composition and overall health as well. Activities that DON’T build or help maintain bone mineral density include aerobic exercise on the elliptical, cycling, training with resistance bands, training only on weight machines, or a low volume muscular endurance program because none of these methods effectively “load” your skeleton.

The solution to achieve stronger bones is for both genders to start strength training in elementary or high school. They should learn the traditional lifts, along with the Olympic lifts when appropriate, so that they build bone at a young age and learn proper technique. Also, it’s necessary to teach older men and women to perform heavy lifting (with proper technique) with spine-loading exercises.

Strategy #2: Balance Calcium, Magnesium & Vitamin D

You need to be savvy about diet to support bone mineral density because there are many misconceptions about the best food for bone building. For example, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D are all essential for strong bones, but dairy is not the best source for these nutrients, and dosing with calcium won’t help either. Rather, it may cause other health problems, especially for men in whom it has been shown to induce heart attacks.

Research shows that dairy foods are highly acidic, but the body is healthier if it has a more alkaline pH—a number of diseases are linked with having a low pH because the body’s enzymes can’t function well. When you eat a lot of dairy, the body will actually pull calcium from the bones to neutralize the acidity from the dairy and there is evidence that bone loss may increase.

Calcium-rich vegetables, especially green vegetables such as kale and broccoli, and other veggies like sweet potatoes are high in calcium that is more easily absorbed by the body than dairy-based calcium. Ideally, you can fill all your calcium needs by eating a diet high in these foods.

If you choose to take a calcium supplement, don’t go overboard. A recent large-scale study in the British Medical Journal has shown that in women, 700 to 800 milligrams of calcium day is adequate, and more than that is the range beyond which it appears to stop increasing bone density. Be aware that intakes of 1,000 milligrams of calcium have been associated with increased risk of heart disease in women.

Vitamin D and magnesium are actually the powerhouse nutrients for bone building. Magnesium activates cellular enzyme activity, allowing the body to convert vitamin D into its active form to help with calcium absorption and bone building. Plus, all the enzymes that metabolize vitamin D require magnesium. The presence of magnesium in the body leads to the release of the hormone calcitonin, which helps to preserve bone structure and draws calcium out of the blood and soft tissues and back into the bones. Magnesium also suppresses a hormone called parathyroid that works to break down bone.

Most people need to supplement with both vitamin D and magnesium because these nutrients are involved in so many physiological processes. For optimal bone health, researchers suggest a calcium to magnesium ratio is about 1:1, while vitamin D can be taken with a dosing method of 35,000-50,000 IUs twice per week or 5,000 IUs a day.

Strategy #3: Eat A Diet that Supports Bone Health
  • Eat dried plums for stronger bones. A recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that women who ate dried plums daily increased bone mineral density significantly. Plums are rich in antioxidants that scavenge free radicals that are linked to bone loss. They also have high amounts of vitamin K, which is used in the bone building process, and of boron, which modulates calcium metabolism.
  • Eat more antioxidant-rich berries because they will have similar positive effects on bone as dried plums.
  • Increase vitamin K consumption by eating more green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and prunes. Studies show women and men who get more dietary vitamin K have less hip fractures.
  • L-arginine, vitamin C, and inositol can improve bone health. If you eat 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily you will get enough vitamin C. L-arginine is an amino acid that can be supplemented or gotten from meat and animal products. Inositol can be gotten from the fruits cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges, and plums.
  • A high-protein diet supports bone health but only if it is part of a diet that includes adequate intake of the essential nutrients for bone (magnesium, vitamin D, and calcium). For example, a high-protein diet with less than 400 mg/day of calcium may increase bone loss and risk of hip fracture because the protein elevates calcium loss in the urine. Avoid this with a diet rich in vegetables, high protein, and adequate supplemental nutrients.




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