How to Build Bone Mass

More than 30 million Americans have low bone mass, or osteopenia, according to the National Institute on Aging. Low bone mineral density can lead to osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become fragile and are more likely to break. You can influence some of the factors that contribute to bone density and fragility to maximize your bone mass throughout your life.

Like muscle, bones respond to exercise by getting stronger. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Factors in Low Bone Mass

Bone is living tissue that is constantly changing. As you age, existing bone is broken down faster than it is replaced, and the rate of bone loss accelerates. Hormonal changes play a role in bone density. As a result, women are more likely to have low bone mass than men, especially after menopause, although loss of bone mass affects both sexes. Your genetic makeup, age, ethnicity and medication use also influence your bone mineral density. Steroids such as prednisone, for example, can lead to rapid bone loss.

Nutrition and Lifestyle

A steady supply of the right nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D, is essential for maintaining strong, healthy bones. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 1,000 mg of calcium daily for adults up to age 50 and 1,200 mg for adults older than 50. An 8-ounce glass of milk provides nearly one-third of that, according to the NOF. Other sources are yogurt, spinach, broccoli and kale. Sunlight helps your body make vitamin D, which is also found in salmon, tuna and fortified dairy products. Cutting back on caffeine, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking also contribute to better bone health.

Exercise to Promote Bone Growth

Exercise can help prevent bone loss. Weight-bearing exercises, especially short bouts of high-impact exercise, such as skipping or jumping, and resistance training have the greatest effect. Walking, yoga and Pilates also support bone growth. Not all types of exercise work, however. Walking and climbing stairs make your body work against gravity, which promotes bone growth, while swimming and cycling do not. You should do weight-bearing exercises for 30 minutes on most days and strengthening exercises 2 or 3 times a week, says the NOF.

Medications and Considerations

Certain drugs can help prevent or treat osteoporosis. Bisphosphonates, such as alendronate (Fosamax) or risedronate (Actonel), are the most commonly prescribed medications. They may cause increases in bone density and a reduction in spinal and hip fractures, according to a 2009 analysis in "Journal of Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management." Side effects include gastrointestinal problems and joint or muscle pain; leg fractures are a rare but serious complication. Selected estrogen receptor modulators are another option. Some people taking raloxifene (Evista) experience leg cramps, flu-like symptoms, or hot flashes. Rare but life-threatening adverse effects are heart attack or stroke. Osteoporosis medications can also be very costly. Discuss with your doctor whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

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