July 13, 2020
The human skeleton is comprised of 206 bones, which provide the framework for the body—giving support, movement, and protection. Bones are the primary storage site of calcium in the body, produce red blood cells, and regulate endocrines.
Bone building occurs over the first 20 years of your life. That's why bone health is important, especially for young people. Bone health is measured by a bone mineral density test, which compares your bone mass to that of a healthy person of the same age and sex. Low bone density can increase the risk of broken bones or osteoporosis, so it’s important to build as much density as possible while you’re young.
After age 20, bone density begins to naturally decrease. Old bone is still replaced with new bone, but at a slower rate, so bones become weaker. That means that the bone strength and density you build as a child and teenager have a lingering impact on the rest of your life.
Fortunately, there are a few things that can be done to build healthy, dense bones while you’re young:
Calcium is required to build strong bones. Younger people need a lot of calcium to build strong bones, and this is especially important as the body relies on the stores of calcium in the skeleton for other uses, such as nerve and muscle function. The easiest way to get a heavy dose of calcium is to eat the right diet: low-fat dairy products – especially milk, yogurt, and hard cheese – are rich in calcium.
Vitamin D helps the body take in calcium, so it’s an important complement to the heavy calcium intake recommended above. Getting a full dose requires spending some time in the sun: the body makes vitamin D when skin is exposed to the sun. While it doesn’t occur naturally in many foods, vitamin D is often added to milk, yogurt, and other foods, and is available as a supplement if intake is still not enough.
Physical activity causes bones to become stronger. Weight-lifting, running, or other exercises that cause your body to bear its weight help build strong bones. Exercising 60 minutes or more a day benefits bone growth and can help slow bone loss in older people when developed as a lifelong habit.
Tobacco contributes to weak bones, which provides yet another reason to give up smoking. It’s also important to limit certain medications (such as corticosteroids) that can damage bone, and be aware of the impact that eating disorders or hormone levels can have on bone growth.
The early and late onset of puberty can negatively impact bone density, so it’s important for young people to manage their weight. Obesity causes puberty to accelerate in girls and delay in boys, both of which make it harder to build the healthy bones that will be needed later in life.
Osteoporosis may not show up until you’re older, but the foundation for strong bones is laid early in life. While the immediate impact of building up your bone density may not be fully appreciated, your older self will be very grateful you made bone health a priority.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.