How to increase bone density
Learn how to increase bone density through exercise and diet
Do you want to know how to increase bone density and why it’s important? We need strong bones to support us and allow us to move. They protect the brain, heart and other major organs from injury. They also store minerals including calcium and phosphorus, which help keep bones strong and healthy.
We reach our “peak” bone mass in our late 20s, and we start to lose bone strength as we get older. After menopause in particular, women can become more prone to osteoporosis. Strong bones, and muscles, reduce the risk of injury and improve balance and coordination.
Nutrition consultant Jenna Hope says: “Maintaining high bone density is essential in reducing the risk of age-related bone disorders, such as osteoporosis, which occurs when bones become weak, brittle and prone to fracture. If we have low bone mineral density, we have a higher risk of breaking bones later on in life. We’d also be more prone to pain and impaired posture due to brittle and weak bones.”
Exercise – especially weight training – can help increase bone density, as well as a diet rich in vitamins, protein and calcium.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, approximately 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and another 44 million have low bone density. Fortunately, no matter how old we are, there are many things we can do to prevent bone loss, and even build new bone.
Try strength training
We all know that weight lifting is good for developing muscles, but did you know that it also helps increase bone density? Studies have shown that lifting weights and strength training can aid new bone growth and maintain the existing bone structure.
“Weight lifting is a brilliant lifestyle factor that can contribute to supporting long-term bone health as it encourages constant bone turnover. As a result, regular weight lifting can contribute to the development of new bone, which in turn allows the bones to get stronger,” says Hope.
Strength training can particularly benefit post-menopausal women, a 2003 study in Postgraduate Medical Journal found. The women undertook a strength-training program for 12 months and saw “significant increases” in their bone density in the spine and hips – areas commonly affected by osteoporosis.
If you want to give strength training a go, this weights at home workout is a great place to start. Arming yourself with a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells (or cheap adjustable dumbbells, if you're in the market for a bargain) is an efficient and brilliantly versatile way of adding resistance to your home workout.
Eat vitamin C-rich foods
If you want to increase bone density, vitamin C plays an essential role in the production of collagen, which in turn aids bone strength. “By contrast, lifestyle factors, such as stress, physical inactivity, high caffeine and alcohol intakes and smoking can contribute to impaired bone health,” says Hope.
She adds: “Vitamin C is widely abundant in fruits and vegetables and consuming five portions of fruits and vegetables a day is ample to obtain the recommended 40mg per day. Vitamin C is water-soluble and therefore if high doses are consumed as a supplement, the body will excrete the additional Vitamin C, which is not required.”
Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruit, peppers, strawberries, kiwis, blackcurrants, broccoli, brussels sprouts and potatoes.
Up your calcium
Calcium is the most important nutrient for bone health and it’s crucial that people are getting enough from their diets or in supplement form. The recommended upper limit for calcium is 2,500mg a day for adults (19 to 50). For 51+, the limit is 2,000mg a day.
“Calcium, along with phosphorus, contributes to the production of the mineral hydroxyapatite, which provides the strength and density within the bones. Low levels of calcium can be difficult to identify as 99% of calcium is stored in the bones and when blood levels fall, calcium is released from the bone into the blood. As a result, low calcium status can often be masked and consequently may increase the risk of low bone mineral density,” says Hope.
She adds: “While calcium is particularly important, it cannot work without vitamin D and vitamin K. Vitamin D enables the absorption of the calcium into the blood and vitamin K then acts as a carrier to help transport the calcium to the bones. As a result, ensuring the consumption of calcium alongside vitamin D and vitamin K is pivotal for bone health.
Calcium can be found in dairy products, fortified dairy alternatives, nuts (such as almonds), tofu and green leafy vegetables. Generally it’s recommended to supplement with 10µg of vitamin D during the winter months and ensure adequate, safe sun exposure throughout the summer months. Vitamin K can be found in green leafy vegetables and soy products, such as natto.”
Avoid low calorie diets
Extreme diets, especially low-calorie ones, can lead to all sorts of health issues, including loss of bone density.
“Eating a low-calorie diet can increase the risk of weakened bones as there are fewer opportunities to obtain adequate nutrients to support bone health. Therefore, ensuring a healthy, energy- and nutrient-dense diet is key to supporting long-term bone health,” says Hope.
A healthy weight is also essential for bone density. If you are underweight you will have a higher risk of developing bone disease, while if you are overweight you will be putting extra stress on your bones. Yo-yo dieting – rapidly losing and gaining weight – is also bad for bone density. As you drop pounds, you will most likely lose bone density, but if you gain the weight back the bone density will not come with it – meaning weaker bones and heightened risk of osteoporosis-related fractures.
Eat more protein
Want to know how to increase bone density? Eat more protein, advises Hope. “Protein helps to support bone structure and bone strength. Those over 65 years of age can benefit from increasing their protein consumption and engaging in safe regular weight training in order to optimize bone health and reduce the risk of falls and fractures,” she says.
“Complete proteins (those containing all nine essential amino acids) can be found in a host of animal sources, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Protein can also be found in plant sources, yet complete plant proteins can be hard to find. Therefore, those on a vegan- or plant-based diet should ensure they’re consuming a variety of plant sources, it’s imperative to get a variety of amino acids – the building blocks of protein. Sources of plant protein include beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, soy products and wholegrains.
“Protein can also be found in smaller amounts in some vegetables such as broccoli and spinach,” says Hope.
Todd, J. A. (2003, June 1). Osteoporosis and exercise. Postgraduate Medical Journal. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://pmj.bmj.com/content/79/932/320
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Maddy has been a writer and editor for 25 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Women's Health. Maddy is also a fully qualified Level 3 Personal Trainer, specializing in helping busy women over 40 navigate menopause.