Skip to main content

How to reverse bone loss

Clinicians review a spine

A decrease in bone density is a natural part of aging, but healthy living can slow down and even reverse bone loss.

Loss of bone density may accelerate as time passes, but you can take steps in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond to help fortify skeletal strength and prevent the worst effects of bone loss.

It helps to think of bone loss and rebuilding as a cycle. In youth, you build bone mass faster than you break it down. Bone loss occurs when bone-building mode is slower than break-down mode. This may lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis — low bone density and bone weakness. Both conditions increase your risk of falls and fractures. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, one in two women and up to one in four men will break a bone in their lifetime due to osteoporosis.

Women’s bone mass peaks around age 30. Bone loss begins gradually after that and speeds up after menopause. Men typically achieve greater peak bone mass, but they lose bone mass over time, too.

Factors that increase your risk of osteopenia or osteoporosis:

Menopause Small stature and thin frame Overactive thyroid
Caucasian or Asian ethnicity Past cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation Family history of osteoporosis
Excessive alcohol consumption

Smoking

Lack of exercise, especially strength training

Certain medications such as steroids and antacids

Low calcium and vitamin D intake

 

Dietary musts for strong bones

You can prevent or reverse bone loss with a diet that’s rich in nutrients and minerals that are key to building and maintaining bone: calcium, vitamin D and phosphorous.

Calcium is constantly removed and replaced through a bone “remodeling” process, but it isn’t made by the body. Good dietary sources of calcium include dark leafy greens such as collard greens and kale, dairy products including milk, cheese and yogurt and fish, especially sardines and salmon. In addition, many foods are fortified with additional calcium. Women over 50 and all adults over 70 should ingest 1,200 mg a day of calcium. If choosing supplements to augment your dietary calcium, the National Institutes of Health recommends 1,000 mg daily for most adults.

Vitamin D works with calcium to help build and maintain strong bones. There is very little vitamin D in food, but some good natural sources are cod liver oil, salmon and tuna, fortified milk, egg yolks and liver. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because our bodies can synthesize the vitamin with exposure to sunlight. It doesn’t take much — studies suggest that 30 minutes of midday sun exposure outside on your arms and face twice a week can maintain healthy vitamin D levels. While experts normally suggest wearing sunblock in direct sun, it actually inhibits the process. So use your judgment — enjoy the sunshine in short bursts, and if you’re especially fair-skinned, consider supplements. As with calcium, you can goose your vitamin D intake with a supplement; the NIH recommends 600 IU (international units) daily.

Phosphorus helps to maximize calcium’s ability to strengthen bones. Find it in protein-rich foods such as tuna, tofu, milk, chicken, lentils, pumpkin seeds and quinoa. Adults should get 700 mg of phosphorus daily, which is easy to accomplish with a balanced diet.

Workouts that build bones

Weight-bearing exercise, which is any activity that makes you work against gravity, builds and maintains bone density. Enjoy high-impact dancing, jogging, running or tennis. If you prefer low-impact workouts, try walking (outside or on a treadmill), hiking or elliptical or stair-climbing gym equipment. Resistance training with free weights, machines or a resistance band also builds bone, particularly in your upper body and spine. Performing at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week is good not only for your bones, but also for your overall health. Be sure to consult a physician before starting any exercise program.

Good health habits

You can help reduce your risk for developing osteoporosis by eliminating unhealthy habits, including smoking, which has been associated with bone loss. In fact, studies have shown that smoking increases the risk for fracture. Similarly, chronic, heavy alcohol intake may also increase the risk for developing osteoporosis. Consult your physician for help in quitting smoking and reducing or eliminating your alcohol intake.

Bone density testing

More than 53 million people in the U.S. are living with osteoporosis or are at high risk, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Sometimes you don’t have symptoms until you break a bone. If you think you’re at risk, ask your doctor if you should have a bone densitometry test, which is a low-dose X-ray that measures the density of bone. This painless scan takes 10 to 20 minutes to perform.

Go to top