6 Ways To Keep Your Bones and Body Healthy As You Age

Paying attention to your musculoskeletal system during your 30s, 40s, and 50s can keep your bones healthy for years to come.

You may expect to develop a few aches as you age—perhaps a shin twinge, creaky elbows, or a sore lower back. But what if you could take steps to avoid those problems starting today?

"Your 30s, 40s, and 50s are a window of opportunity to course-correct any unhelpful habits that hurt your musculoskeletal health," Melody Hrubes, MD, a sports medicine specialist at the Rothman Orthopaedic Institute in New York, told Health. "If you make adjustments now, you can avoid surgery and set yourself up for more pain-free days later on."

Here's a series of simple steps to protect your musculoskeletal system—your bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints—for years to come.

How To Improve Musculoskeletal and Bone Health

As you age, you may notice your bones become increasingly weak and prone to fractures. 

"And during menopause, we experience a drop in bone density, thanks to waning estrogen, which is a key contributor to bone-cell production," Sonu Ahluwalia, MD, clinical chief of orthopedic surgery at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Health.

As estrogen and bone density decrease, your risk of osteoporosis, a condition causing weak bones that fracture easily, rises. Osteoporosis can also cause severe pain that interferes with your daily activities. Because menopause typically happens between ages 45 to 55, osteoporosis mainly affects older women.

Follow a Diet and Exercise Regimen for Bone Health

What you consume and how you exercise your body can affect your bone health. Making an effort to add bone health-supporting foods and strengthening your overall body can help improve bone health.

Calcium and Vitamin D

One of the best ways to support your bones is to choose a diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients essential to strengthening bone tissue. 

Many people get calcium from dairy sources, like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Additionally, if you follow a plant-based diet, some sources of calcium include:

  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Tofu
  • Some fruit juices

Fatty fish like trout, salmon, tuna, and mackerel are a great source of vitamin D. Also, some non-dairy milk is fortified with similar vitamin D levels as cow's milk.

Also, if you have a health condition, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which possibly causes inflammation and nutrient deficiencies, you may have a high risk for osteoporosis. If it's difficult to eat some foods rich in calcium and vitamin D because of diet restrictions, supplements may help. However, consult a healthcare provider before adding supplements to your daily routine. 

Weight-bearing Exercise

Another way to keep your bones strong is engaging in weight-bearing exercise—like walking, running, or strength training—a few times a week.

"These workouts exert a force on your bones that stimulates them to produce new cells," noted Dr. Ahluwalia.

Don't Ignore Pain, Especially When Working Out

Working out is vital for so many aspects of your health. But remember that it's also a major culprit of musculoskeletal damage, such as back pain, muscle strains, and sprains.

"Injuries from physical activity either come from doing too much too soon or not having the correct form," said Dr. Hrubes. And those injuries can lead to serious issues. Injuries from exercise are among the top reasons people under 50 need orthopedic surgery, added Dr. Hrubes.

Pay attention to your body's physical signals to avoid sitting on the sidelines. Don't brush off tenderness or push through discomfort. 

Generally, acute pain resolves within a short time. But if your pain persists, or you're feeling numbness, tingling, or having trouble walking, immediately bring up your pain to a physical therapist or orthopedist, urged Dr. Hrubes. A healthcare provider can help you adjust your routine or technique, so you can give your tissues a chance to heal.

"It's also important to mix up your workouts," noted Dr. Hrubes. Getting a variety of forms of exercise will help you target different muscles and ligaments and prevent overuse injuries. For example, if you're a runner, try incorporating a few days of yoga or swimming into your weekly regimen.

It's important to get a bone-density test at some point to check for any weaknesses. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force suggests that you receive bone measurement testing to prevent fractures caused by osteoporosis starting at age 65. But you may want to begin screening earlier than that if you've already had more than one fracture.

Be Careful When Using Ice

When you have a slight sprain, or you think you pulled a muscle, there's a good chance you'll head to the freezer for a bag of peas. Usually, the standard advice for minor injuries is RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

But as it turns out, ice isn't always beneficial. Ice can sometimes have harmful effects. While ice can ease the pain within the first 24 to 48 hours, it may delay healing.

"It [ice] constricts blood vessels, which slows down the inflammatory response," explained Dr. Ahluwalia. Swelling is part of the recovery process. The body increases blood flow and sends white blood cells and fluid to the damaged area to repair it.

Slipping on a compression sock or sleeve can help by squeezing any built-up fluid out of the area. Also, a healthcare provider may recommend gentle movement to prevent your tissues from stiffening up.

"Another common mistake is icing sore legs or arms after an intense sweat session," said Dr. Hrubes. "Soreness means your body is repairing the micro-tears in the muscles and building them back stronger." 

A foam roller can help by loosening up tight tissue and improving blood flow to the area. And if you don't have a foam roller, try rolling a lacrosse or tennis ball over your sore spots instead.

Consider Physical Therapy

For musculoskeletal pain, a healthcare provider may recommend medicine, such as painkillers or steroids, surgery, and physical therapy. Some orthopedists may advise first trying physical therapy. Physical therapy helps strengthen the area causing discomfort and correct any imbalances contributing to the problem. 

"The therapy may even build up your resilience," noted Dr. Ahluwalia. "It could reeducate your central nervous system to be less sensitive to pain signals."

For example, a study published in 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with knee osteoarthritis who received physical therapy sessions had less pain and better physical function than those who received steroid injections.

In some cases, medication may be necessary. But combining medication with a physical therapy regimen might boost healing further. Some evidence suggests that taking anti-inflammatory drugs or receiving steroid injections works better alongside physical therapy.

Strengthen Your Pelvic Floor

Back pain is one of the most common musculoskeletal issues and also one of the most frustrating. There are a variety of possible causes—including a herniated disc, compressed nerves, poor posture, and even weak glutes. 

But it's worth considering yet another potential source often overlooked: An imbalance in the pelvic floor, the group of muscles and connective tissues that stretch from your pubic bone to your tailbone.

"When the pelvic floor muscles become too tight or weaken, they end up putting pressure on the back," explained Dr. Hrubes. 

That discomfort often comes with other symptoms, such as:

  • Heavy or aching feeling in the vaginal area that worsens throughout the day or with bowel movements
  • Constipation
  • Urinary incontinence

Pregnant or postpartum people, or people with endometriosis or uterine fibroids, are more prone to pelvic floor issues. Lifting heavy weights can also put you at risk.

If you have an aching back, a pelvic-floor specialist can help you rehabilitate the problematic muscles. 

"Most women are able to find relief with a combo of physical therapy and biofeedback therapy, "added Dr. Hrubes.

Learn How To Sit Properly

Data published in 2018 in JAMA Network found that one in four adults in the United States sits for eight or more hours daily.

"Sitting in one position or with poor posture tightens up many of your muscles, ligaments, and joints, which often leads to soreness and pain," said Dr. Hrubes.

Here's how to better manage all those hours on your bottom. First, don't attempt the 90-90-90 posture with your knees, hips, and elbows all bent at 90 degrees. 

"There's actually no good evidence that that position is best, and it could result in joint stiffness," noted Dr. Hrubes. Instead, Dr. Hrubes suggested leaning back a little in your chair so that your hips are bent at an angle slightly greater than 90 degrees. Also, move your feet away from your body, so your knees are bent at a greater angle.

"If you're not working at a desk, choose a stable seat that allows you to sit as upright as possible. A kitchen chair, for example, is better than a couch," advised Dr. Hrubes. "And if the seat feels uncomfortable for your tush, invest in a gel cushion, which can help prevent soreness and the loss of blood flow caused by some hard surfaces."

Then, try to get up about every 20 to 30 minutes. The idea is to alternate between sitting and standing. When you're on two feet, take a short walk, or try hip, neck, and shoulder rolls—and enjoy the stretch.

A Quick Review

Taking charge of your musculoskeletal health during your 30s, 40s, and 50s can keep your bones healthy for years to come. Ensuring that you get enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet, exercise without straining yourself, and recover properly are some keys to healthy bones.

Consider seeing a physical therapist if you experience lasting aches and pains. And if you're sitting for more than eight hours daily, make sure you get up to stretch or move your muscles every 20 to 30 minutes.

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Sources
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