Your 20s and 30s are a time for building: your career, relationships, social network, financial future — and a healthy skeletal system. Bones shield your organs from injury and provide the framework for your muscles to generate movement. Taking steps to keep your bones healthy now reduces the likelihood of future problems, including osteoporosis and fractures.
Eat a Balanced Diet
There is truth to the old adage, "You are what you eat." Although calcium and vitamin D get the most attention, your bones also require other nutrients to stay strong and healthy. Vitamins A, C and K; protein; phosphorus; magnesium; potassium; zinc; copper; iron; manganese and fluoride all contribute to the strength of your skeletal system. A well-balanced diet that includes a broad array of foods remains the best way to obtain a full complement of bone-healthy nutrients. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains provide many of the vitamins and minerals needed to build and maintain healthy bones. Low-fat and nonfat dairy milk and fortified soy milk contribute high concentrations of protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A and D. Fish, lean meats, dry beans and nuts also serve as healthy protein, vitamin and mineral sources.
Make Time for Physical Activity
Balancing your work and home life so that you can get to the gym, work out or participate in sports often presents a challenge. Regular physical activity, however, is one of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy skeletal system. Weight-bearing exercise is especially important for women. The gravitational pull of your muscles on your bones counteracts bone loss, which typically begins in your 30s. Weight-bearing activities include walking, jogging, stair climbing, backpacking, circuit training, trampoline jumping, step aerobics, dance fitness, free weight training and working out with a weight machine or resistance bands. If physical activities are getting pushed aside because of your busy schedule, try recruiting a friend to be your workout buddy. Scheduling a time to meet helps ensure that your workout time isn't left in the dust.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Maintaining a healthy body weight confers skeletal health benefits. Avoiding weight gain prevents undue stress on your hips and knees. Overweight and obesity increase your risk for arthritis later in life and may interfere with current physical activities. Being underweight can also harm your bones. Underweight women frequently have less bone mass than their normal-weight counterparts. Being severely underweight may disrupt your menstrual cycle, reduce your estrogen level and lead to bone loss.
Cigarette smoking undermines virtually every aspect of your good health, including a strong skeletal system. Smoking reduces the amount of calcium you absorb from your diet and diminishes the blood supply to your bones. In addition, nicotine interferes with new bone formation, which occurs continuously as your body recycles old bone and lays down new. Smoking also may reduce the level of estrogen in your body, weakening your bones and potentially leading to early menopause.
Drink in Moderation
Long-term, heavy drinking during your 20s and early 30s may permanently weaken your bones by interfering with new bone formation during the time when your bones should reach their peak mass. Moderate drinking — one or two drinks per day — while relaxing in the evening or enjoying a night out does not harm your bones and may reduce the risk for osteoporosis among older, menopausal women.
- Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service Office of the Surgeon General
- USDA Agricultural Research Service: What's in the Foods You Eat Search Tool, 5.0
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Weightbearing Exercise for Women and Girls
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity
- Baylor College of Medicine: Bone Health: Bone Density and Osteoporosis Prevention in Young Women
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Smoking and Musculoskeletal Health
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Alcohol and Other Factors Affecting Osteoporosis Risk in Women
- Menopause: Moderate Alcohol Intake Lowers Biochemical Markers of Bone Turnover in Postmenopausal Women
Dr. Tina M. St. John owns and operates a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an accomplished medical writer and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.