Back to School Tips for Best Bone Health

PJ Hamel Health Guide July 31, 2013
  • Whether you’re starting your first day of kindergarten or simply a long-time “student of life,” back to school means turning over a new leaf. What can YOU do this fall to ensure best bone health?

     

    Shakespeare famously wrote of the seven ages of man, ranging from infancy to very old age, each with its own special attributes and challenges.

     

    We might easily apply the Bard’s wise words to bone health, as well – because from infancy to old age, each stage of life comes with its own issues around healthy bones: from building, to maintenance, to repair.

     

    Toddlers

    Let’s start with the very youngest among us. While nursing babies don’t need to worry about calcium, parents of toddlers should be aware of their children’s intake of both calcium and vitamin D. While bones naturally build in size and strength as a child grows, it doesn’t hurt to give them the nutrients they need.

     

    It’s currently recommended that toddlers (through age 3) get about 700mg calcium a day; if your child enjoys yogurt, milk, or other dairy products, these are a good source. Look for calcium-fortified orange juice, cereal, and other foods, as well. 

     

    From the age of 1 on up through adulthood, the recommended daily vitamin D intake is 600IU. Unless your child enjoys oily fish (sardines, mackerel, et. al. – not likely!), s/he’ll probably need a D supplement.

     

    Remember, also, that a good deal of daily vitamin D for all of us – toddlers to seniors – can come from sunlight; just 10 to 15 minutes daily, for all except those across the northern tier of the country, is sufficient. That assumes sun exposure without sun block; after that initial 10 minutes or so, apply sun block for longer exposure.

     

    Children

    Children need both exercise and the proper foods to continue to build their bones. Through age 8, recommendations are that a child get 1000mg calcium daily; from age 10 to 18, that jumps to 1300mg. Given a child is eating dairy or soy products as a regular part of the daily diet (yogurt, cheese, milk/soy milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, tofu), calcium shouldn’t be an issue. Again, look for calcium-fortified cereal and OJ, especially for those who don’t love dairy. 

     

    A children’s multivitamin will supply the necessary vitamin D; check the label to make sure your child is getting at least 600IU.

     

    Just as important as diet, though, is exercise. Bones thrive on being gently stressed, via running, jumping, and active games. While this shouldn’t be a problem for most children, make sure your son or daughter doesn’t spend his or her afternoons glued to the TV or a tablet. 

     

    Encourage organized sports, or any kind of physical activity, from swimming to bicycling to kickball at the after-school program. Exercise not only strengthens bones, it reduces the risk of childhood obesity – a condition that can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s life.

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    Teens

    Your child’s diet is harder to control, now that s/he’s a teen. Rolling out of bed too late for breakfast, grabbing a granola bar for lunch, and the after-school stop at McDonald’s all contribute to a potential calcium/vitamin D shortfall – and this at a time when bones are really building the density and strength they need for adulthood.

     

    For that reason, it’s important your child takes a daily multivitamin, unless you’re sure s/he’s getting plenty of vitamin D and calcium from his or her diet. If s/he’s not a happy pill-swallower, there’s no shame in sticking with kids’ chewables; just read the label to see how many to dole out.

     

    Oh, and one more thing: If you happen to be the parent of a teenage girl who’s an elite athlete, the combination of dieting for body image and an aerobically challenging sport can actually bring on teenage osteoporosis. For more information, read Young Female Athletes – At Risk for Osteoporosis?

     

    Young adults

    When kids leave the nest and go out on their own, they may find it irresistible to experiment with binge drinking. Most kids probably tried a beer or spiked cola (or two, or three) in high school; but out on their own, and knowing they don’t have to come home and face Mom and Dad, they’re more likely to drink to excess.

     

    Did you know youthful binge drinking causes irreversible damage to bones later in life? The best way to avoid this damage is to drink responsibly: less than 2 to 3 ounces alcohol daily, which translates to 4 to 6 glasses (4 to 5 ounces each) of wine or beer (12-ounce bottles); or 2 to 3 mixed drinks (each containing a shot of liquor). Any more than that (and some young adults drink, much, much more), you’re setting yourself up for osteoporosis in your senior years.

     

    Mature adults

    After hitting their peak of strength at about age 35, your bones start a long, slow decline. And it’s up to you to slow that natural process by exercising, and maintaining adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D: 1000mg calcium and 600IU vitamin D daily. 

     

    Make sure calcium-rich foods are part of your daily diet. Also, pay attention to how and when you get that calcium, to make sure it’s working its hardest for your bones.

     

    And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record here: exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise can build bone density, especially weight-bearing exercise. Join a gym; do a vigorous lunchtime walk with co-workers; go up-tempo while performing household and yard chores. You can (almost) never get too much exercise!

     

    Seniors

    As we reach our 50s and 60s, bone health starts to take on more urgency. Menopause in women can cause a steep and precipitous decline in bone density; and for that reason, women over age 50 are encouraged to increase their calcium intake to at least 1200mg daily. (Have you tried Viactiv calcium chews? Caramel or chocolate – need I say more?) For men, the jump to 1200mg calcium comes at age 70.

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    Exercise: it’s good for just about everything that ails you, from fatigue to minor aches and pains. Exercise has also been shown to keep your mind sharp. 

     

    Eat right; and if you can’t eat right, take supplements. 

     

    Have a baseline DEXA scan by age 65; this will determine whether your bones are normal for your age; strong for your age; or if you have osteopenia or even osteoporosis. Don’t be afraid to find out where you stand; knowledge is power, and if you know your bones are weakening, there are drugs you can take (or lifestyle changes you can make) to slow or even stop the process.

     

    After all, don’t you want to be active enough to keep up with the grandkids?

     

    Back to school; back to business. Here’s to your good (bone) health!