By C Doussett M.P.H., R.D.N. of Clark’s Nutrition and Natural Foods Market
The oft-forgotten skeleton is one of our most powerful allies in the quest for health and a long life. Our skeletons not only keep us upright, but they protect vital organs, link body systems to each other and produce our oxygen carrying red blood cells and the majority of our immune cells. They also do wonderful things like nourish us when our diets are lacking and provide the basis for the pH balance in our blood. Taking care of our skeleton requires an adequate mineral and protein supply, as well as important fat soluble vitamins, specifically vitamins D and K. In addition, our skeletons require that we remain physically active and challenge ourselves in a way that sends vital neuro and hormonal signals to maintain bone integrity. Even a modest amount of exercise will have some benefit, yet the majority of individuals with sound bone health adhere to a well thought out and consistent exercise program. This means not only engaging in “cardio” (running, swimming, and biking) but resistance exercise, colloquially known as “hitting the weights”.
Weight training allows bones to experience what is known as the minimal essential strain (MES). The MES is a specific force that induces positive changes in skeletal health and is generally calculated at one/tenth the strain it would take to fracture a bone. In other words, weight training places a healthy strain on our bones that signals those same bones to strengthen themselves. The effects of resistance training on bone health can be felt after only a few sessions and regular training can ensure bones are healthy for years to come.
Knowing this, we must ask, who is at risk for impaired bone integrity?
- Individuals with small skeletal structures, this unfortunately means a majority of women, including smokers and alcoholics
- Soda drinkers- due to the high phosphorous content and caffeine, also known to block calcium absorption, or simply because soda is replacing milk and fortified orange juice as the beverage of choice
- Everyone after a certain age as hormones decline.
What problems does impaired bone health (a.k.a. osteopenia and in advanced cases, osteoporosis) present?
- Increased risk of fractures and breaks, especially hip fractures which can also lead to pressure sores and blood clots which may lead to pulmonary embolisms
- Pain when exercising and performing activities of a physical nature
- Weakened muscles and decreased quality of life
There are important activities we can do to strengthen our bones at an early age so they carry us through life. The recommendations for both kids and adults are, not surprisingly, very similar:
- Get plenty of exercise. Playing like a kid is a great way to send signals to the bones to keep them strong, resistance training as well as an aerobics class, yoga or a walking group
- Get your calcium. Leafy green vegetables and bone/mineral broths. For those individuals eschewing dairy, calcium fortified grains, salmon in the can with the bones, and fermented soy products are great, as well as dried spices like thyme, oregano, and basil (up to 100 milligrams of calcium per three tablespoons)
Major fractures later in life can cause immune system compromise and leave us susceptible to opportunistic infections. Keep your skeleton young and your body will follow suit, and as always, have a healthy day.