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The diagnosis of osteoporosis—or warning-level osteopenia—may cause you to frantically search for information on how to increase bone density. The answer may be as simple as the food you eat and your activity level. Of course, your physician can prescribe a drug when you ask how to increase bone density, but that may not be your best choice.
The Downsides of Drugs
Pharmaceutical products can solve the “how to increase bone density” question. There are several effective medicines available for osteoporosis, with varying dosage periods, from daily or monthly to quarterly or annually—and even to once every two years. The drugs are available as pills, injections, sprays, and a patch.
The final decisions on types and dosage will rest with your physician, of course, as these are prescription drugs. However, these medications are not without side effects. The most common: gastrointestinal upsets. And side effects can be as severe as alterations in the bone in your jaw, or even fractures.
“For many people, prescription bone-building medicines should be a last resort,” said Dr. Karen Chapman-Novakofski, a University of Illinois professor of nutrition. The scientist said that prescription bone-building medications are expensive, and that many have side effects—including, ironically, an increase in hip fractures and jaw necrosis. They should be used only if diet and supplements don’t do the trick.
Dr. Chapman-Novakofski reported in an issue of Nutrients that adults who increase their intake of calcium and vitamin D usually increase bone-mineral density and reduce the risk for hip fracture significantly. The results were often accomplished through supplements, but food is also a good source of these nutrients, she said.
Healthy Nutrition and Your Bones
Eating healthy is how to increase bone density at the most basic level. Increase your consumption of vegetables and fruits while maintaining an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), calcium-rich foods include the following:
- Collard greens (frozen; 360 mg per 8-oz. serving)
- Broccoli rabe (200 mg per 8-oz. serving)
- Kale (frozen; 180 mg per 8-oz.)
- Sardines (canned with bones; 325 mg per 3 oz.)
- Milk (skim, low-fat, whole; 300 mg per 8-oz. serving)
- Almond milk, rice milk, or soy milk (fortified; 300 mg per 8-oz. serving)
- Waffle (frozen, fortified; 200 mg per 2 pieces)
- Oatmeal, fortified (140 mg per packet)
See the NOF’s chart by clicking here.
As for vitamin D-rich foods, cooked salmon and cooked swordfish are top sources, according to the National Institutes of Health. So too is tuna fish (canned in water); orange juice fortified with vitamin D), milk and eggs.
The NOF recommends that women over 50 and men over 70 get 1,200 mg of calcium daily. For vitamin D, the organization recommends 800 to 1,000 IU daily. (Note: Your primary-care physician may advise you to get more vitamin D, as the currently recommended levels are considered low by many medical experts.)
There are calcium-vitamin D combo supplements available, if you’re concerned you’re not meeting your daily needs. Vitamin D is needed in adequate amounts to ensure your body can absorb the calcium you consume.
Exercise: The Most Important Factor in How to Increase Bone Density
Without argument, the most significant thing you can to maintain bone density is exercise. Weight-bearing and resistance exercises will give you the most benefit. But we don’t mean you need to lift weights, and you don’t need learn any “how-to.” Increase bone density exercise can be as simple as going for a brisk walk. (See our post “The Benefits of Walking.”)
Weight-bearing exercises include doing stair-steppers, aerobics, tennis, and even dancing or yard work. Riding your bike or swimming, however, are not weight-bearing exercises (they’re resistance exercises, see below). Weight-bearing exercises can range from low-impact (like walking or dancing) to high-impact (jogging and tennis). Both will help you succeed in increasing bone density, although you do get more out of the high-impact choices.
One of the most recommended high-impact exercises for improving bone density is jogging. (See our post “The Benefits of Walking vs. Running.”)
Resistance exercises are anything that causes your muscles to contract, so pushing a heavy wheelbarrow, using light dumbbells or a resistance band, working the machines at the health club, and swimming can all help you strengthen your muscles.
While posture and flexibility exercises won’t do much directly to solve your questions on how to increase bone density, they promote overall strength, balance, and smooth movement. Improving these areas will make the weight-bearing and resistance exercises do more for you, and they help with balance issues.
Dr. Chapman-Novakofski suggests a combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises with a focus on improving your core muscles so you can catch yourself if you start to fall. Whatever sort of exercise you’re doing, you have to introduce new forms of activity every so often because your bones will stop responding to the same old routine and rebuilding will slow, she said.
For further reading, see these posts:
- “Bone Density Chart: Understand Your Bone Density Scores“
- “Osteoporosis -2.5: What Does That Bone Density Test Score Mean to You?“
- “Osteoporosis Exercises: A Proven Exercise Program Involving Strength Training for Building Bone Density“
- “Can Osteoporosis Be Reversed Without Drugs?“
DEXA TEST: IT’S NOT A BONE SCAN
A bone-density test measures the strength, or thickness, of your bones. The gold standard here is the DEXA scan, or dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry test.
A DEXA test gives your doctor information about the density of your bones, which is then used to predict fracture risk and recommend treatment, if any. The test takes 10 to 20 minutes. It’s non-invasive and you don’t need to remove your clothing. But don’t call it a “bone scan,” as that’s a different procedure. A bone-density test is generally covered by Medicare once every two years.
In a nuclear bone scan, or skeletal scintigraphy, radioactive tracers are injected into you and images are taken at the molecular level. It is used to look for bone cancer, infection, sources of pain, and/or trauma. You usually have to wear a patient gown, and the test is done in two parts. The first part—the injection and possible preliminary pictures—takes about 15 minutes. You will then be asked wait one to four hours later, so images can be taken of the tracers in your bones. This second part takes about an hour. The most difficult part is lying still for an hour. Medicare generally covers medically necessary bone scans.
Keep in mind that you can’t expect quick results when increasing bone density. Most medical experts agree it takes approximately two years to see a change in bone density.