Drink your milk! Surely you remember your mother admonishing you with those words when you were a kid. And she was absolutely right: Kids who drink plenty of milk (or get plenty of calcium from other sources) grow up to have less risk of osteoporosis, the disease that causes bones to become thin and brittle.
It appears that not many of us listened very well to Mom; annually, osteoporosis accounts for about 700,000 spine fractures, 300,000 hip fractures, about 250,000 wrist fractures, and 300,000 fractures at other sites. One out of two women over 50 and one in eight men over 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point.
Even if you’re not a kid anymore, there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself. From upping your calcium intake to getting the right exercise, here are the 28 best ways to protect your 206 bones. Pay special attention to this advice if you are over age 50, have a family history of osteoporosis, or are a woman who has gone through menopause, because your bones may be more vulnerable.
1. Add almonds to everything. They’re packed with bone-strengthening calcium. Just an ounce, about a handful, of the sweet nuts provides 70 mg calcium. Try them toasted and sprinkled over salad or yogurt, ground and mixed into meat or turkey for meat loaf or meatballs, used in place of pine nuts for homemade pesto, or as a topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt.
2. Drain a can of sardines, mash the fish with a tablespoon of low-fat mayonnaise, add some salt and pepper, and spread over whole wheat crackers. Another packed-with-calcium food, sardines (the kind with the bones) make a great substitute for tuna. Pair this snack with a glass of milk and your bones have got it made!
3. Stash calcium supplements everywhere. If you’re like most people, between the vitamins, supplements, and medications you may be taking every day, a calcium supplement — best taken twice a day — is apt to be forgotten. So stash them all over the place. Put a bottle in the glove compartment of your car. Keep one on your desk at work. Slip a roll of Tums (a great source of calcium) in your purse or pocket. Put a bottle in full view on your kitchen counter. Calcium is best absorbed in two doses of 500 or 600 mg taken at least three hours apart. Choose a brand that has vitamin D, too, which your body needs in order to use the calcium.
4. Drink one cup of tea a day. That’s all it took in a study of 1,256 women ages 65-76 to increase their bone density 5 percent. That translates to a 10-20 percent reduction in fracture risk! Another study found that among more than 1,000 Chinese men and women, those who regularly drank tea (usually green tea) had denser bones than those who didn’t.
5. Make two glasses of water a day mineral water. Mineral water contains calcium, and a study published in Osteoporosis International in 2000 found that your body absorbs the mineral just as well from water as it does from milk. Make sure the water is labeled “mineral water,” not “spring water.”
6. Do 12-16 squats every day just before you get into bed. Squats are particularly beneficial for your hips, which are especially prone to fracture. Pretend you’re about to sit in a chair, only there’s no chair behind you. As you “sit,” try to lower yourself enough so that your thighs are parallel or nearly parallel to the floor, but don’t let your knees extend beyond your toes.
7. Jump rope for 10 minutes every day. It’s one of the best all-around exercises for building bone. You can even find jump ropes that measure not only the number of jumps you complete, but how many calories you burn. Be careful when you start, though. This exercise requires coordination, and if your bones already happen to be thin, the last thing you want to do is fall.
8. Turn your face up to the sun every day when you walk to and from your car. Aim for about 15 minutes a day of sun exposure, without sunscreen. That’s how much your body needs to make vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin” important to bone health. And exposure to sunlight enhances mood because sunlight affects levels of the hormone melatonin. Too little sun can result in a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Studies find that women who are prone to depression are also more likely to have lower bone density.
9. Try some coleslaw or stuffed cabbage rolls for dinner once a week. Cabbage is rich in vitamin K, a vitamin that helps turn on a bone-building protein called osteocalcin.
10. Ride your bike off-road this weekend. A study published in the journal Bone found that cyclists who spent part of their time off-road had above-average bone density, while those who stuck to the streets had slightly below-average bone density. They speculate that the bouncing you do over rough terrain helps stimulate bone growth.
11. Roast a butternut squash tonight. Butternut squash is high in calcium (about 10 percent of the daily value in a one-cup serving). Slice open, scoop out the seeds, then spray the top with butterless cooking spray and sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon. Roast until soft, about 45-60 minutes, and scoop out the flesh. Voilà! Osteoporosis fighter in a veggie.
12. Order your pizza topped with sardines and spinach. Not only is it delicious (come on, give it a try), but you’ll get a ton of bone-protecting calcium in every bite.
13. Pop four dried figs for a midafternoon snack. Dried figs are a great source of calcium. Sprinkle a cup of diced figs over your yogurt, and you’ll meet more than half your daily calcium needs.