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When it comes to osteoporosis it’s never too early to start protecting yourself. A few simple lifestyle changes are all it takes

You trip, put out a hand to save yourself and, without warning, you end up in plaster with a broken bone. It could happen bone. It could happen to any of us. It’s painful, inconvenient and a very real risk for the one in every two women over 50 who breaks a bone after a trivial fall because of osteoporosis. “Healthy bones should be able to withstand a fall from standing height,” says the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS). But from our 30s onwards, being aware and making some simple lifestyle changes can help us ensure that a break means a holiday and not a hospital stay.

Description: Careful! You can guard against unlucky breaks

Careful! You can guard against unlucky breaks

1.    Sleep soundly… but skip the lie-in

Keep your back in alignment by sleeping on your side, or on your back with a pillow under your knees. Then set the alarm. One study of 19,000 people found that those who slept for more than eight hours a night were at higher risk of osteoporosis.

Description: Sleep soundly… but skip the lie-in

Sleep soundly… but skip the lie-in

2.    Eat greens – and not just spinach

Not all greens are equal. Watercress and spinach contain oxalic acid, which blocks the update of calcium by the bones. “Try kale, spring greens, and broccoli, which don’t have that effect,” explains Sarah Leyland of the NOS.

Description: 1. Eat greens – and not just spinach

Eat greens – and not just spinach

3.    Think slim, not skinny

A BMI of less than 19 is a risk factor for osteoporosis: find yours with the BMI calculator on the NHS website (nhs.uk).

4.    Ask about your mum’s health (and don’t forget your dad’s)

You may not realize it, but 80% of bone health is inherited – so your mum’s broken hip could affect your health. But having a father who fractures a bone, as one in five older men do, also increases your risk.

5.    Resist bone loss with the right workout

Weight training and Pilates with bands are both types of resistance exercise, which tones muscles, strengthens bones and, as a bonus, sees off batwings, too. If you’re fit and active, try for three sessions a week, leaving a rest day in between to let your body recover. Can’t stand the gym? Use your own body weight – press-ups can improve bone density in the forearm, says the NOS. (If the mere thought makes you groan, start by doing them against a wall.)

6.    Skip the sunscreen – but just for 10 minutes

Sunshine provides 90% of the vitamin D our bones need, so take advantage of it when it does appear. Aim for two 10-minute sun breaks a day between May and September, without sunscreen, to allow skin to soak up the sun and strengthen bones naturally.

Description: A little summer sun can give bones a boost

A little summer sun can give bones a boost

7.    Dance, but don’t party

Dancing is a great way to protect your bones, but avoid smoking and heavy drinking. Cigarettes and an alcohol intake of more than two units a day both erode bone.

8.    Keep a diary (But not like bridget jones)

Instead, track your periods, as it’s not just fertility that’s affected if illness or weight loss interferes with menstruation. Oestrogen produced during the cycle also protects our bones, so any woman whose periods stop for six months or more should see her GP. If the cause is premature menopause, HRT is usually prescribed until 52 – the average age at which periods stop.

9.    Worry less about weight and more about height

Osteoporosis is one condition where it’s better to be heavier than lighter, says rheumatologist Professor David Reid of the University of Aberdeen, because a few extra pounds may protect your bones. In contrast, monitoring height is vital, as a subtle loss of inches is a sign of compressed or fractured vertebrae in the spine. Check it every year after your 50th birthday – losing more than 4cm (1½ inches) needs attention.

10. Go for a walk – and take the kids

Do their bones a favor and drag them away from the iPad. Young girls, in particular, need plenty of exercise to build up their ‘bone bank’ and prevent future problems. It’s especially important when they start secondary school, because they create as much bone between the ages of 11 and 13 as they will lose in the 30 years post-menopause.

Description: Go for a walk – and take the kids

Go for a walk – and take the kids

11. Health problems weaken bone, but so can the cure

Anyone with rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel or coeliac disease, or an overactive thyroid should be monitored for osteoporosis. And make sure you’re assessed if you’re prescribed drugs for epilepsy or have taken steroids (prednisolone) for more than three months.

12. Say no to diet cola and yes to latte

Regular cola drinkers may be at greater risk of bone loss, according to US research. But it’s the acidity-not the caffeine- that’s to blame. Although high levels of coffee can lead to calcium loss, it’s unlikely to harm bones unless you have more than five cups a day. To be safe, drink it white. Just two tablespoons of milk per cup can help neutralize the effect.

Say no to diet cola and yes to latte

Say no to diet cola and yes to latte

13. Be picky with protein- unless it’s from plants

Most protein is acidic (but not in taste) and leaches calcium from the bones- one reason why we’re  advised to limit our daily intake to 1.5g per kg of body weight (around 95g for a 10-stone woman). The trouble is, we’re also supposed to eat 700g calcium a day and the best sources are often high in protein. Try to balance animal protein. Try to balance animal protein  with alkaline foods such as protein – rich beans, fruit and veg. But avoid calcium supplements unless you are medically advised to take them.

Description: Try to balance animal protein. Try to balance animal protein  with alkaline foods such as protein – rich beans, fruit and veg.

Try to balance animal protein. Try to balance animal protein  with alkaline foods such as protein – rich beans, fruit and veg.

14. Lean back, not forward

If you’re at a high risk of osteoporosis, swap sit- ups and toe touches for baby backbends. Too much forward movement can put pressure on the spine, and if your back is fragile it could cause a compression fracture. ‘Ask your instructor for alternatives, such as sit-ups with a cradle,” says Sarah Leyland of the NOS, and take care when bending or twisting during golf and tennis. Visit nos.org.uk to download its leaflet, Exercise And Osteoporosis.

15. The pill may help – but contraceptive jabs won’t

Taking the contraceptive pill can top up the hormones needed to protect bones in women who have an early menopause. If you simply want to prevent pregnancy, however, avoid injectable contraceptives, which can make bones more fragile.

16. If you break a bone, your GP should ask questions…

Funding is now available for GPs to assess patients for bone strength following a fragility fracture, and NICE is considering extending screening to all women over 65. But why wait? Work out your risk for yourself using the Frax tool from The University of Sheffield (visit shef.ac.uk/frax).


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