What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a condition that makes your bones weaker and more likely to break or fracture. This means even a minor bump or accident like falling out of bed or off a chair can cause a fracture. The cause of osteoporosis is a loss of bone density. Loss of bone density happens when your bones lose minerals like calcium faster than the body can replace them.
Older women are more likely to develop osteoporosis as after menopause, the level of oestrogen falls in the body and this can lead to a reduction in bone density. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in four women over 75 have osteoporosis and one in 10 men have the condition.
Most people only get a diagnosis after they break a bone as there aren’t any obvious symptoms of osteoporosis. A bone density scan can diagnose osteoporosis. This test usually measures bone density at the hip and spine and takes around 10-15 minutes.
How can you prevent osteoporosis?
It’s possible to reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by doing certain types of exercise and making sure you have enough calcium and Vitamin D.
Weight-bearing and progressive resistance exercises
It seems counter-intuitive, but putting stress on your muscles and bones increases bone density and decreases your risk of fractures. While exercises like swimming and cycling have many health benefits, they won’t increase your bone strength. To increase your bone strength, you should do weight-bearing and resistance exercises on 2-3 days a week.
Weight-bearing exercises are those that you do on your feet so you have to carry your own weight. They include:
- walking, jogging and running
- basketball and netball
- impact aerobics
Progressive resistance exercises are those that get harder over time. These can include:
- hand or ankle weights
Exercise is also a great way to become more aware of your body and even achieve better balance. Balancing exercises specifically can help you to reduce falls, but they don’t increase your bone strength. Balancing exercises including tai chi, or some yoga poses like standing on one leg.
Calcium is important because it combines with other minerals to form hard crystals that give your bones strength. You should make sure you have enough calcium in your diet because if your levels get low, your body will start to withdraw calcium from your bones. If your body starts to withdraw more than it deposits, you bone density will slowly decline and your risk of osteoporosis will increase.
Less than half of Australians get their daily recommended intake of calcium. You can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by making sure that you have 3-5 serves of calcium rich foods each day including:
- dairy foods like yoghurt, milk or cheese
- oily fish like salmon
- nuts like almonds
- green vegetables like broccoli, mustard cabbage or Bok Choy
- soy products like tofu
Women and men aged 19 and over should have 1000 mg of calcium a day, while women over 50 and men over 70 should have 1300 mg a day. It’s best to get your calcium from your diet, but when this isn’t possible, you can try a supplement. Osteoporosis Australia recommends doses of 500-600mg per day. Calcium supplements are sometimes combined with Vitamin D.
Children require lots of calcium rich foods and weight bearing exercises like running or playing outside to develop strong bones. The teenage years are especially important as well as around 50% of our bone mass is built during adolescence. Your 20’s are your last chance to add to your adult bone mass so you still need to make sure you’re getting enough calcium and doing the right kinds of exercise. After about the age of 30, you can only maintain bone mass.
Vitamin D also helps to maintain your bones and increases the absorption of calcium. In Australia, it’s likely that your main source of Vitamin D will be from exposure to the sun. Skin exposure to sunlight causes our bodies to produce Vitamin D. Despite how sunny it is here, many Australians still don’t get enough Vitamin D, especially during winter. In fact, over 30% of adults have a form of Vitamin D deficiency.
Osteoporosis Australia recommends most adults should have a level of least 50 nmol/L at the end of winter. This means they might have levels up to 60 – 70 nmol/L in summer. If you have any concerns or questions about your vitamin D level, you should see your GP.
Osteoporosis Australia also recommend that if you’re Vitamin D level is low, you can try a supplement. If you have some exposure to sunlight and you’re under 70, you should aim for 600 IU per day. If you’re over 70, you should aim for 800 IU per day. If you don’t have any exposure to sunlight, you should go for higher doses of up to 1000 – 2000 IU per day. Diet alone can usually not provide a high enough amount of Vitamin for your body.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.