No bones about it: Preventing osteoporosis with these diet and exercise habits

Osteoporosis: It’s a disease that manifests later in life, but  the foundation of healthy bones begins at a young age. Characterized by weak bones, osteoporosis can cause fractures and chronic pain. Here’s how it works: Your body is constantly breaking down and rebuilding your bones.

For the first 25 to 30 years of your life, your body makes more than enough new bone to replace the bone it loses. Around this time, you reach what’s called “peak bone mass,” meaning your bones are at their strongest. But after age 30, the pendulum swings the other way and you start to lose more bone than you gain. This process continues for the rest of your life. For women, the most rapid bone loss is in the years around menopause. For those who haven’t built up their bones enough during those first 30 formative years, that’s when osteoporosis can set in.

Known as the silent disease, osteoporosis can strike without warning. In fact, many people don’t know they have it until after they suffer a fracture. And while there’s no cure for the disease once you get it, there’s plenty you can do to prevent it in both yourself and your kids.

A parent’s role to prevent osteoporosis in kids

As a parent, you can greatly reduce your child’s chance of developing this disease later in life. Christina Morganti, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC), says,

“The fact of the matter is, the exercise and dietary habits you instill in your children can either be a powerful mechanism to prevent osteoporosis or a perfect storm for the disease to develop.”

There’s no surefire way to determine whether or not you or your children will develop osteoporosis later in life. The best solution? Do everything you can to prevent the disease early in life. If you’re a parent, make sure you’re helping your kids build strong, healthy bones.

Your guide to building strong, healthy bones

Luckily, preventing the disease isn’t complicated. But it does require some self-discipline and, depending on your current habits, shifts in your diet and exercise routine. Here’s what you can do for yourself and your children to help fend off the disease:

  1. Know your family history. “If you have a parent or sibling with osteoporosis, you’re at a higher risk of developing it yourself,” says Dr. Morganti. Knowing empowers you to take extra measures to ensure you’re keeping your bones as strong as possible.
  2. Exercise! The more you use your muscles, the stronger they become. Same goes for your bones. Weight-bearing exercises help improve your bone density to form stronger bones. This includes any exercise that uses resistance to make you exert effort. Resistance can come from dumbbells, your own body, fitness machines, etc. The result? New bone tissue forms as your muscles push and pull on the bones around them, strengthening both bone and muscle.
    Your action plan: Mix it up! Variety keeps exercise exciting and ensures you’re using a variety of muscles. Try a stair workout, hiking, running, walking, weight training or dancing to reduce your risk of osteoporosis. “While swimming and biking are great low-impact exercises, they don’t have the same effect on your bones as weight-bearing exercises do,” says Dr. Morganti. “Children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day. For adults, the recommendation is at least 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise like walking, supplemented with strength training two to three days a week and balance training one to two days per week.”
  3. Know what to avoid. While there’s plenty you can do to keep osteoporosis at bay, don’t forget about what not to do if you want strong, healthy bones. “Some studies have linked salt, caffeine, carbonated soda and alcohol consumption with accelerated bone loss,” says Dr. Morganti. “If your children have a diet heavy in salty, processed food or drink caffeinated or carbonated drinks, this could affect their bone density.” And add this to your list of reasons not to smoke: Multiple studies reveal that smoking can actually limit your body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  4. Calcium, calcium, calcium. We’ve heard it all before. Drink your daily glass of milk to nourish your body with adequate calcium. But did you know there are plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium? Or that your body needs a certain amount of vitamin D in order to absorb the calcium you consume? “To make the most of the calcium you eat, pair calcium-rich foods with foods high in vitamin D, like tuna, shrimp and eggs (yolk included),” explains Ann Caldwell, nutritionist and registered dietitian at AAMC. Sunlight can also help the body produce more vitamin D, which is why it’s not uncommon for people to be vitamin D deficient in the winter. If you have a desk job, try taking a walk or eating your lunch outside to soak up some rays. Just don’t forget the SPF.

No dairy, no problem

Besides the beloved trio of milk, cheese and yogurt, there are plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium out there, including:

  • Canned salmon. Half a can contains 23 percent of your daily value of calcium. It’s important to note that other forms of salmon won’t reap the same calcium-rich benefits as canned salmon.
  • Figs. Pick up a bag of dried figs for a sweet, fibrous snack to keep bones strong. Cut them up into small pieces and mix with nuts and other dried fruits for a homemade trail mix your children will love.
  • Kale, spinach, bok choy and turnip greens. There’s a reason why leafy greens are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. But there’s no need to limit yourself to the same green salad. Sauté greens with some sea salt and olive oil, or add them to a stir-fry.

If you’ve passed the 30-year mark of your body making plenty of new bone tissue, taking preventative measures against osteoporosis can still be effective, and are vital to maintaining healthy bones. But the reality is that calcium and weight-bearing exercises will have a more dramatic effect on the strength of children’s bones than those of older adults. “The lesson here is to make sure you’re helping your children develop habits that create strong bones to last a lifetime,” explains Dr. Morganti.

Recipe: Salmon Pasta Salad

This pasta salad includes a healthy dose of calcium from the canned salmon. Plus, it’s easy to pack up the leftovers for a healthy work-day lunch the next day. Dietitian’s tip: For added calcium and health benefits, serve this on a bed of baby spinach. It’s delicious!


1 (8-oz.) package of farfalle or bow tie pasta
2 heads broccoli, chopped into florets
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, crushed/pressed
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
10-oz. canned salmon, rinsed, drained and broken into small pieces


Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes.

Bring a separate large pot of water to boil. Add broccoli and carrots, cook in boiling water for 2 minutes and drain.

Combine soy sauce, olive oil, vinegar, garlic and lemon juice in a sealable container and shake vigorously. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Toss together the drained pasta, vegetables, salmon and dressing in a large bowl.

Store in the refrigerator.

 Want to eat healthier but not sure what to cook? Try more of these healthy, delicious recipes from our registered dietitians.

 Christina Morganti, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at Anne Arundel Medical Center and has developed a dedicated osteoporosis program at her practice, AAMC Orthopedics. You can reach her office at 410-268-8862.

Ann Caldwell, Anne Arundel Medical CenterRecipe author Ann Caldwell is a registered dietitian with the AAMC Wellness and Health Promotion Department. To reach her, call 443-481-5555.

Orginally published November 29, 2016. Last updated May 2, 2018.

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