Strong bones and muscles increase our fitness and balance, protect us from falls, and help to ensure our mobility and independence. However, as we age, our bones and muscles start to deteriorate. Bones lose calcium and other minerals, become thin and break easily, a condition called osteoporosis. Muscles get weak and lose mass, a condition called sarcopenia.
As many as half of all women and a quarter of all men older than 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis, reports the National Institutes of Health. Osteoporosis is a major reason for fractures in women past menopause. When bones are fragile, even a minor fall can cause fractures. Like osteoporosis is to bone, sarcopenia is to muscle. Sarcopenia (Greek for loss of flesh) is a medical condition that refers to age-related muscle loss. Both conditions may compromise an older person’s health and ability to function independently.
The good news is that regardless of how old we are, there are steps we can take now to protect our bones and muscles, maintain our strength, and build mass. From eating nutrient-rich foods and taking supplements to implementing a weight-bearing exercise program and quitting smoking, healthy lifestyle choices hold the key to our future health and well-being. And it’s never too late to make a change for the better.
What causes bones and muscles to weaken? What can you do every day to keep a strong body?
Let’s first begin with bone health. Our bones are continuously changing; new bones form while old bones break down. Most people reach their peak bone mass around age 30. After that, our bones continue to reconfigure but we lose more bone mass than we gain. How much we lose and how likely we are to develop osteoporosis is dependent upon how much bone mass we had at our peak and our lifestyle habits.
Risk Factors for Osteoporosis
Many factors put us at risk for osteoporosis including how much calcium we eat in our diet, how much we exercise, if we smoke or drink alcohol, our body size (small frame is more at risk), our gender (females are more at risk) and age (our bones thin as we get older). Even race affects our risk, as people of white and Asian descent are more likely to have osteoporosis. Also, too much thyroid hormone and long-term use of some medicines, such as corticosteroid medications, put us at risk. We don’t have any control of some of these risk factors, such as age and gender, but we do have control over our lifestyle habits.
6 Strategies to Prevent Bone Loss
- Consume More Calcium
Men ages 51 to 70 should aim for 1,000 mg of calcium a day. Women after age 50 and men after age 70 need to up the intake to 1,200 mg of calcium a day. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products such as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, almonds, dark green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, collard greens and bok choy, canned salmon with bones, sardines, soy products, such as tofu, and orange juice, cereals, and other foods fortified with calcium. In addition to consuming these foods, you may also want to ask your doctor if you should take calcium supplements.
- Take in Vitamin D
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Getting sunlight from the sun causes your body to make vitamin D, but many seniors don’t get enough vitamin D this way. For adults ages 19 to 70, the RDA of vitamin D is 600 international units (IUs) a day. The recommendation increases to 800 IUs a day for adults age 71 and older. Good sources of vitamin D include oily fish, such as tuna and sardines, egg yolks and fortified products such as milk. In addition to consuming these foods, you can also ask your doctor about supplements.
Try to get a total of at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Find time for activities like walking, tennis, dancing, stair climbing, gardening, and weight-lifting.
- Avoid Substance Abuse
Don’t smoke and avoid drinking more than two alcoholic drinks a day. Smoking and heavy alcohol use can decrease bone mass and increase the chance of fractures.
- Ask About Screenings
If you worry that you may be at risk for bone loss, ask your doctor for a bone density test. This painless test assesses your bone health and risk of future fractures. Medicare and many private insurers cover this test for eligible people. Women over age 65 and all men over 70 should have a bone density test. The results, as well as an evaluation of your risk factors, will help your doctor determine if you have had bone loss and if you may be a candidate for prescription medication to improve bone health. These medications can slow bone loss, improve bone density, and lessen the risk of fractures.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight
Being underweight increases the risk of bone loss and broken bones. Falls are a common reason for trips to the emergency room and for hospital stays among older adults. Many of these hospital visits are for fall-related fractures. You can help prevent fractures by maintaining the strength of your bones. Although having healthy bones won’t prevent a fall, having healthy bones can prevent hip or other fractures that may lead to a hospital or nursing home stay, disability, or even death.
How to Preserve Muscle Mass
Exercise. Beginning at age 30, most of us lose about 1 percent of muscle every year, as the body starts tearing down old muscle at a faster rate than it builds new tissue. This loss of muscle slows the body’s metabolism, causing us to gain weight over the years. The first step in slowing this process down is to start resistance training (or weight training). A landmark Tufts University study demonstrated that previously sedentary postmenopausal women who lifted weights twice a week for a year could increase their muscle strength by about 80 percent.
Before starting an exercise program, always consult your health care provider. Use smooth, steady movements to bring weights into position. Breathe out as you lift or push a weight and breathe in as you relax. There are plenty of weight-bearing exercises you can do, and many you can do from a chair.
You can use weights, resistance bands, or common objects from your home. Or, you can use the strength-training equipment at a fitness center or gym. Start with light weights and gradually increase the amount of weight you use. Starting out with weights that are too heavy can cause injury. If you can’t lift or push a weight 8 times in a row, it’s too heavy for you, and you should reduce the amount of weight, reports the National Institute on Aging.
Try to do strength exercises for all of your major muscle groups on 2 or more days per week for 30 minutes at a time, but don’t exercise the same muscle group on any 2 days in a row. When using weights, take 3 seconds to lift or push a weight into place, hold the position for 1 second, and take another 3 seconds to return to your starting position. Don’t let the weight drop; returning it slowly is very important, suggests the National Institute on Aging.
Muscle strength is progressive over time. Gradually increase the amount of weight you use to build strength. When you can do 2 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions easily, increase the amount of weight at your next session.
Nutrition. Another important element to consider is nutrition. Let’s discuss some foods to eat to optimize your muscle mass. The International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) Nutrition Working Group suggests that we eat plenty of protein in our diet, as well as fruits and vegetables, and get adequate vitamin D either through foods, sun exposure or supplements to preserve muscle mass and function. In addition, the IOF contends that vitamin B12 and/or folic acid play a role in improving muscle function and strength.
So how much protein do we need and in what form? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that elderly women need about 46 grams of protein per day while older men need about 56 grams, although many other researchers believe that seniors need even more protein than that especially if they are bedridden from a prolonged illness or injury.
Aim to eat foods that are considered complete proteins. That means the protein source contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that are crucial to human function and health. The CDC recommends complete proteins such as chicken, fish, red meat (in moderation) and low-fat dairy, or a combination of beans and rice. In addition, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is considered one of the most perfect non-animal sources of protein on the planet and is a favorite among vegetarians.
Eating the right foods, exercising and taking supplements as directed won’t prevent you from taking a tumble, but maintaining healthy bones and muscles will help you recover more quickly and be less likely to suffer a long-term injury or disability.