Building Bones That Last

Girls can prevent crippling osteoporosis later in life with healthy habits

Building Bones That Last


Osteoporosis or ‘brittle bones’ is a disease that women are particularly prone to after menopause. It is more prevalent in women with smaller frames and less body mass. With age, bones become progressively more porous and vulnerable to fracture, sometimes with as little provocation as a sneeze.

Fortunately, it is a disease that seems to be largely preventable, but we need to start our daughters on the road to prevention early. Three things are key to preventing osteoporosis:

  • adequate calcium intake in the diet throughout life
  • getting enough Vitamin D – either through sunshine or supplements
  • exercise at least three times a week that begins in childhood and continues throughout life

Calcium & Vitamin D important

Calcium is essential for strong bones. Growing girls should be getting about 1,000 to 1,300 mg per day, amounts that are easily achieved with a healthy diet. Calcium is found in a variety of foods – not just dairy products but also cooked green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and beet greens, almonds and almond butter, tofu, and sardines.

Explain the benefits of a healthy diet to children at a young age. Involve them in shopping, meal planning and cooking so they learn early the importance of a, balanced diet. If your child is a really picky eater and you want to make sure she gets adequate calcium, consider a supplement. There are a variety of good tasting chewable and liquid forms available.

Vitamin D enables absorption of calcium, and is therefore also necessary for bone growth. Canadian winters make it tricky to get enough Vitamin D from its main source: the sun. While 20 minutes per day of sunshine on the body would provide us with adequate amounts of Vitamin D, clothing and sunscreens inhibit this process. So it’s important to supplement the Vitamin D in our diets. There is still some debate over adequate doses of Vitamin D supplements, but the current recommendation is that children under 10 should get at least 400 IU of Vitamin D per day. After age 10, they should receive 1,000 IU per day. Check with your health care provider for the appropriate dosage for your child.

Girls need exercise

Exercise is one of the most important ways of preventing osteoporosis and it should begin in childhood in order to maximize its effect.

Most people think of bones as being static and unchanging. The truth is that new bone is constantly being formed as old bone is broken down. During childhood, new bone growth is greater than bone resorption or breakdown. This happens to the greatest extent during growth periods. The process 

of bone building peaks between the late 20s and 
early 30s. After this age, bone building gradually 
diminishes. Bone loss is accelerated significantly 
after menopause unless steps are taken to halt the process. Bone mass will remain the same if bone building and bone loss processes are equal.

We can maximize the increase in bone mass that naturally occurs during childhood growth periods with regular exercise. For bone-building, weight bearing exercises are the best, that is, walking, running, jumping, dancing, skating, hiking, tennis, stair climbing, soccer, etc. While non-weight bearing exercises such as cycling and swimming are of great benefit to us in other ways, they do not benefit bone density significantly.

Girls who learn to exercise regularly at a young age will be more likely to carry on this healthy habit throughout their lives. Educate your daughters at an early age about the benefits of regular exercise. Encourage them to join you in walking, hiking, skiing, skating, or exercising at the gym. Children are more likely to exercise if the whole family is involved. For reluctant teens, offering incentives such as a new bike or clothing may just get them off that couch and away from the computer.

Maintaining a certain frequency of exercise is essential. Somewhat vigorous weight bearing exercise such as gymnastics, skipping, folk dancing, and volleyball should be done for a minimum of 30 minutes three times per week. Less vigorous exercise, such as walking, hiking and gentler forms of dance, should be done four to five times per week.

With proper exercise and adequate levels of calcium and Vitamin D, girls will grow up to have greater bone strength and fewer problems with bone loss as they age.

Author: Dr. Mary Welch

Dr. Mary Welch is a naturopath and chirporactor at Circle of Life Wellness Centre in Peterborough.

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