A lot of emphasis over the years has been placed on maintaining a healthy heart and cognitive function with age. Sadly, our skeletons haven’t received quite so much attention.
This is disappointing, as the skeleton is prone to a wide range of deleterious conditions. Furthermore serious skeletal issues often go undiagnosed for long periods of time; they are often symptom-free until it’s too late.
As the famous saying goes: “prevention is better than the cure”. In this article we are therefore going to walk through some of the best things you can do to make sure your body doesn’t hold you back as you age.
It can certainly be a challenge to change our eating habits, but modifying your diet can be one of the most powerful actions to maintain strong bones. Ensuring we get sufficient energy and protein through the diet is obviously important. This is not a concern for most of us, but what is often problematic is ensuring we get enough of the essential vitamins and minerals on a regular basis.
Four Key Micronutrients
There are four key nutrients that work together to ensure our bones remain strong. These are magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K and of course, calcium. The interesting thing is that a deficiency in just one of these nutrients means that the others are much less effective in their roles. For best results, therefore, we need to meet our body’s need for all four.
Firstly, vitamin D is needed in adequate amounts to efficiently absorb the calcium we obtain from the diet. However, without sufficient magnesium, vitamin D is a lot less effective. Finally, vitamin K works by stimulating calcium transporters, to ensure that the calcium gets deposited in the bones, teeth and muscles and not in the arteries.
Interest in vitamin K2 was first stimulated by the Japanese, as one of their most popular dishes known as “natto” is extremely rich in this nutrient. It came as no surprise to the researchers that the Japanese had much higher levels of vitamin K2 in their bodies. What was surprising however was how low the prevalence of osteoporosis and bones fractures was.
On a similar note, the French have been an enigma to scientists for years, as they have a high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, but low instances of heart disease – a phenomenon known as the “French paradox”. Although there are certainly numerous aspects at play, some scientists believe the high intake of vitamin K2 rich foods help to keep the arteries clear.
Now we have covered the importance of the magnesium, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K, let’s have a look at how we can get a sufficient amount for the good of our health.
It is relatively straightforward to obtain enough calcium through the diet, providing that dairy foods are regularly consumed. For vegans or those with an intolerance to dairy, tofu, green vegetables and fortified foods represent good sources.
Sufficient magnesium can be consumed by regularly consuming nuts, seeds, wholegrains, green vegetables, dark chocolate and legumes. However, research has shown that magnesium is one of the most common deficiencies in the western world, so we really need to focus on consuming some of these every single day.
Vitamin D is slightly different, as theoretically we don’t have to obtain it through the diet. The body has the capacity to create vitamin D through sunlight and can store it in fat cells for future use. It was once believed that we could make enough vitamin D in the summer to see us right the way through the winter. However it is now known that this is not the case, and side effects of a vitamin D deficiency such as rickets are making a return.
To compound the issue, food sources of vitamin D are few and far between, with eggs and oily fish providing appreciable amounts. For this reason, most national health organizations now recommend vitamin D supplements for everyone through the darker, colder months.
As older adults and those with darker skin are a lot less efficient at creating vitamin D through sunlight, experts now regularly recommend supplementation year-round. Likewise, this is a smart idea for those who spend little time outdoors or who cover their skin when they do.
There are different types of vitamin K. Vitamin K1 is found in green leafy vegetables, and mainly has a role in blood clotting. However, the strongest evidence for skeletal health exists with vitamin K2, which is found in organ meats, egg yolks and cheeses such as Brie and Gouda – which conveniently are also high in calcium.
Alongside what we put on our plates, exercise and general physical activity is of fundamental importance to a maintaining or building a robust physique. For whatever reason however, not enough of us are completing enough of it each week.
All modes of exercise are going to be beneficial, but muscle strengthening exercises are certainly the most important. Not only do these exercises promote muscles that have both strength and endurance, they also stimulate strong bones and connective tissues.
As the muscles become larger, the bones and connective tissues must also become stronger to provide support. To carry out this action, calcium gets deposited on the top of the bones, therefore increasing bone mineral density – the term scientists use to quantify the strength of the bones.
Although muscle strengthening is important throughout life it is especially important for older adults who naturally see a decline in muscle and bone mass. Exercise is particularly important for post-menopausal women who can lose bone strength due to the decline in estrogen.
To experience the aforementioned benefits, most experts recommend a minimum of two muscle strengthening sessions per week, performed on non-consecutive days that target all the major muscle groups of the body. Exercises such as lunges, squats, rows, shoulder presses and arm curls are all good choices.
Muscle and strength can be built regardless of whether you lift heavier or lighter weights; the key is to keep working until it becomes very difficult to perform any more repetitions without losing good exercise technique.
Other Lifestyle Factors
Although most of our efforts should go into improving our diets and how much exercise we perform, there are further lifestyle modifications we can make to complement these efforts.
Quitting smoking is one of the best behavioral changes someone could make to improve their health, with everyone knowing how much of a risk factor smoking is for heart disease and numerous cancers.
Importantly, smoking can also lead to weak bones – something that is not yet common knowledge. Many people think of the skeleton as a dormant structure, but this couldn’t be more wrong. The bones are constantly in the process of building up new tissue and removing old ones. Unfortunately for smokers, their habit speeds up bone loss, which can lead to weak bones if there is insufficient growth of new bone tissue.
Heavy drinking also affects the bones, through three main actions. In contrast to smoking which speeds up bone loss, excessive alcohol intake actually decreases new bone formation bad news for smokers who like a drink. Secondly, alcohol can ‘flush’ lots of important vitamins and minerals out of the body, and it just so happens that some of these are important for strong bones.
The final one isn’t very scientific at all, but is important nonetheless. Heavy drinking can impair balance which can lead to falls and subsequently bone fractures. Although younger adults may be able to quickly recover from this, older adults take far longer to get over it and rarely rediscover the strength and function they enjoyed before the injury.
You should now be much better equipped to enjoy your senior years without your body holding you back. As we age it is natural to see a decline in the strength of our bones and muscles, but the rate of this decline is largely down to lifestyle. So although the behavior changes we have outlined here may be simple, the key is to start as early as possible and stay consistent with them to enjoy the greatest benefits.