For healthy bones, two factors are most important – good nutrition and physical activity. Many people start to worry about osteoporosis when they are in their 50s, but good bone health starts when you are a child. Peak bone mass occurs when people are between 18 and 25; after that, it’s all downhill. The denser (stronger) your bones are at the time of peak bone mass, the more likely you will have healthier bones for life. This will protect against osteoporosis – a disease that causes thinning of bones and can lead to dangerous fractures. “Most of us start to lose bone mass later in life,” remarked Dr. Michelle Dalal of Reliant Medical Group’s Pediatrics department. “Building up your bones when you are young helps you avoid osteoporosis as you get older and your body ages.”
The keys to building bone density when you are young are adequate levels of vitamin D and calcium as well as regular weight-bearing exercise. Calcium is particularly vital during puberty when the bones grow quicker than at any other time. Studies have shown that many children do not get enough calcium, especially if they don’t eat enough dairy products. The recommended calcium intake for children and teenagers is shown below.
Recommendations provided by National Institutes of Health
Here is a way to look at food labels for calcium content. If a food has 20%DV (daily value) of calcium or more, this food is high in calcium and contributes a lot of calcium to the diet. A food with a calcium content of 5%DV or lower contributes little calcium to the diet and is a low source of calcium.1 Foods that are known to contain a lot of calcium include: low-fat milk or low fat cheese, yogurt, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, peas, dried figs, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin D is also important for bone health, since it helps our bodies absorb calcium. The main source of vitamin D for most people is sunlight and various vitamin D fortified foods such as milk and yogurt. Vitamin D is made by our skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Usually about ten minutes of sun per day (without sunscreen) in the early morning or late afternoon is enough to generate healthy amounts of vitamin D. It is recommended that children and adults get 600 IU of vitamin D a day. If you don’t believe you are getting enough, talk to your medical provider about taking a supplement.
Exercise also plays a big role in developing healthy bones. Children who are too sedentary are at risk for poor bone density development. To strengthen muscles and bones, children should engage in vigorous exercise approximately three times per week. This exercise can be sports such as soccer, tennis, cycling, gymnastics or even skipping rope. In fact, any weight-bearing exercise is useful in building healthy bones. So try to encourage your children to be as active as possible.
It’s important to note that children who don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D and exercise are at a higher risk of developing bone fractures. If a child has had two or more fractures before the age of 10 or three or more before age 19, it can be an indication of a bone health problem. If your child has had multiple bone fractures, talk to your pediatrician about your child’s bone health.
The good news is that with the proper combination of diet and exercise, your children can build up the bone density they will need to stay healthier later in life. Click here to learn more about bone health for children.