Whether you’re 25 or 75, it’s important to think about your bone health to reduce your risk of osteoporosis, as health writer Helen Foster discovers

Three million people in the UK have osteoporosis and the condition is on the rise. But, taking care of your joints and bones now will hugely reduce your risk and make a difference to your health, no matter your age.

So, what is osteoporosis? It’s a condition that weakens the bones and makes them more prone to breaking. “When you have osteoporosis, something as simple as sneezing can crack a rib,” explains rheumatologist Dr Taher Mahmud from the London Osteoporosis Clinic.

It’s a condition that can sneak up on you. It has no symptoms, which means that the only time someone knows they have a problem is when they break a bone.

In this feature, health writer Helen Foster will take you through the decades to look at what you should be doing now to lower your risk. Here’s what you can do…

Looking after your bones… from 20-30 years

We normally reach peak bone mass between the age of 25-30, so your job right now is to try and create the thickest, heaviest ones you can. “For this, you need a diet rich in bone-building nutrients,” says nutritionist Keri Filtness from Nature’s Best.

This means calcium-packed foods such as dairy products or calcium-enriched cereals or drinks. “But, you also need magnesium and vitamin K to ensure that calcium is actually absorbed by your bones,” adds Filtness. You’ll find these in dark, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Vitamin D is also essential for calcium absorption, so consider taking a supplement.

Exercise also builds bone, particularly impact-heavy exercise such as running, tennis or netball. Every time your feet hit the floor, the shock stimulates growth. “Runners have particularly strong leg bones, while tennis players have strong bones in their serving arm,” explains Dr Mahmud. So, try to mix up what you’re doing for all-round bone health.

Looking after your bones… from 30-50 years

You can still build bone using the tips above, but from 35, the balance starts to tip slightly toward bone loss. “You’ll lose around 5% of bone per decade,” says Dr Mahmud.

Trying to decelerate that process is the main goal for optimum bone health now. “Drop the fizzy drinks, especially colas, which are known to leach minerals from the bones,” says Filtness.

For women who become pregnant, be sure to increase your intake of calcium-rich foods. “During pregnancy and breastfeeding you can lose about 5% bone mass as the baby draws calcium it needs from your bones,” says Dr Mahmud. It will normally reverse once you wean your baby, but it’s still suggested that breastfeeding women consume 550mg more calcium a day than normal.

Again, regular exercise is important. “I may be hard to fit in the exercise, but even brisk walking to and from work will help your bone health,” says physiotherapist Tim Allardyce from Surrey Physio.

Looking after your bones… 50 years onwards

Women can lose up to 20% of their bone density in the first five to seven years after the menopause. This is because the menopause causes a drop in the female hormone oestrogen, which also helps to protect bone strength. “But you can still build bone now,” says Dr Mahmud.

Strength training, while good at any age, becomes essential now. “The stronger your muscles, the better your balance and the lower your risk,” explains Allardyce. Aim for at least two sessions a week working your whole body.

Consider adding ‘soya isoflavones’ to your daily regime. “These contain phyto-oestrogens, which are thought to mimic the action of oestrogen in the body,” says Filtness. “Studies suggest taking 100mg a day helps to support bone health.” You’ll find these isoflavones in your food, too – 100g of tofu will give you 20-30g and a 125g pot of soy yogurt about 40g.

Lastly, another risk as we get older is immobility, possibly caused by surgeries or other conditions such as arthritis. “Not moving is one of the most dangerous things for bone loss,” says Dr Mahmud. “Even if you can’t move one part of your body, try and train the others. If you have injured your leg for example, try doing arm weights in bed. Anything you can do to stay active will help.”

There you have it. Follow a calcium-rich diet, take part in resistance training and be as active as possible to take care of your bones now and in the future.

Want to find out more about eating for your bones and joints? Check out these seven foods, chosen by our Vitality nutritionist.