It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when I was still a kid living at home and my parents were on my case about taking a daily calcium supplement; they wanted me to have strong bones as I aged to avoid the familial “shrinking disease” of osteoporosis. The thinking then was that the more calcium I ingested as an adolescent, the fewer bone problems I’d have as an aging adult. Turns out, we should have been paying more attention to my physical activity and the sports I was participating in (thankfully, being a soccer player and later a collegiate rower covered this) than those little Flintstones vitamins that tasted like chalk.
We usually don’t pay much attention to our skeletal system until we have a big problem like a broken bone, but our skeletal system is actually pretty fascinating! Our bodies will build bone and break bone down continually throughout our lifetime; when our bodies need calcium (which is super important for muscle contraction, blood clotting, cell signaling, nerve function and so much more), cells called osteoclasts are signaled to start breaking down bone in order to release the calcium and other minerals into the blood stream. The body will then send in other little guys, called osteoblasts, to start re-building the bone. Here is a cool video on osteoclasts and osteoblasts. In grad school, I heard in a lecture that our entire skeletal system can be rebuilt every 7 years throughout this process.
Our early teenage years are some of the most important as far as ability to build up strong bones, with our osteoblast activity high. Our bone density starts to decline in our 30’s (yikes, I’m there!) through decreased osteoblast activity and other factors such as sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition, and continues declining significantly into our elderly years. Our bodies just aren’t as good anymore in the whole building up new bone department but continues to pick away breaking bone down. The lower our bone density gets, the more fragile our bones become. For women, this especially rings true around menopause and after, as estrogen levels decrease (estrogen promotes bone building) and our bones turn to pudding.
What’s the big deal about bone density? In our elderly years, it can be a matter of life and death. It just takes one trip and fall to break bones and the chances of death from things like pneumonia or blood clots skyrocket. 1/3 of all fall related deaths are attributed to low bone density . And the studies show the breaks don’t even have to be big, bad breaks like a hip or pelvis. Even a broken wrist or collar bone was shown to increase mortality. And if not life and death, it can definitely be a source of significant pain as our spines crumble slowly, unable to hold us upright. I for one know for certain I don’t want to only be able to look at my shoes once I’m old due to my hunchback. Ain’t no shoe that cute in a size 10. Think old age is a long way off and you’ll face that hurdle when you get there? By then, you’re too late to the game. Our teens and 20’s are the most important years for building up good, strong bones.
So how do we build strong bones? Although studies show that taking a calcium supplement does benefit bone density, EXERCISE will actually benefit bone density the most. Specifically, load bearing and impact exercise. Think jogging, jumping, weight lifting. The more stress you can place on the bone the more your body will build that bone up to strengthen it. Sports like swimming and cycling are not load-bearing and show little benefit towards improving bone density. And good news for all of us: it’s never too late to start! In studies with extremely frail elderly with very low bone density, significant improvements were made as far as increasing the bone density with higher intensity and resistance exercise.
Good nutrition also plays a roll in getting your body the calcium it needs. Foods like chia sees, salmon, almonds, dairy, whey protein, figs and dark leafy greens are great sources of calcium. My jury is still out on taking calcium supplements. Although it has been shown to at least minimally aid in bone density, studies are showing there is a possible correlation between calcium supplements and coronary artery disease. I figure if God created our bodies to require calcium to function, but didn’t create Flintstone’s calcium supplements at the beginning of time, I’m ok without it.
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 American College of Rheumatology (ACR). (2015, November 8). Fractures Can Lead to Premature Death in Older People. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 12, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151108084919.htm