Known as the ‘Silent Thief’, osteoporosis affects approximately 2 million Canadians, slowly and quietly weakening their bones. In many cases, people don’t even know they have it until they suffer a fracture – most commonly of the hip, wrist, or spine – which is why it is so important to recognize that May is Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month.
Osteoporosis means “porous bone”, describing the changes in the bones’ microarchitecture. Under a microscope, healthy bone looks like a honeycomb, but the holes in osteoporotic bones are much larger due to bone loss. Our bones are made of living tissue that goes through a regular cycle of resorption and growth (bone metabolism), but around age 30-35 the resorption slowly begins to exceed the rebuilding, resulting in decreased bone density. While this is a normal part of aging, when the bone loss becomes extreme, they are more easily damaged. This can lead to fractured/broken bones, back pain, spinal problems, decreased height, and loss of independence.
Some risk factors for osteoporosis are not under our control, like age, family history, gender, and required prescriptions. With long term use, some medications such as certain anti-seizure medications, chemotherapeutic drugs, some antidepressants, and steroids, can increase bone loss and/or reduce balance, and in turn increase risk of fracture. There are also some health conditions that are related to an increased chance of developing osteoporosis, like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, certain cancers, Parkinson’s, diabetes, kidney disease, and thyroid problems, among others.
There are also preventable risk factors, so you do have some control! Some precautions you can take to help reduce your risk are quitting smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, getting enough calcium and vitamin D, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying active. Foods that are rich in calcium and/or vitamin D include dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, seafood, sesame seeds, and tofu … but my grandma swears by a bowl of ice cream every day 😉!
Not only is exercise important for reducing excess abdominal fat – another osteoporosis risk factor – but it is also your best non-pharmacological tool for maintaining your existing bone mass and preventing further loss! Resistance training is important (especially for the lower body) because it encourages bone growth, and strengthens the surrounding muscles that are there for support, balance, movement, and protection. It’s a great idea to use a Personal Trainer when starting out with resistance training so you know you’re hitting all of your muscle groups while using perfect form and proper mechanics. While any aerobic exercise will benefit your overall health, it is important to include weight bearing (but still low impact) cardio to help keep your bones strong. So, instead of hopping in the pool or on a bike, try weight-bearing activities like walking, stepping, or even dancing! Along with your workouts, incorporate daily balance and posture exercises to help keep you standing up straight and to avoid falling and a possible fracture. Be mindful of how you are sitting, standing, and moving around during the day, and practice thoracic extension to avoid hunching over (kyphosis). Train your balance with heel-toe walking, weight shifting, standing tandem or on one foot, or some light yoga, to be steadier on your feet.
Because osteoporosis often develops without symptoms – until you fall and fracture something – it’s important to stay ahead of the game with being aware of risk factors and practicing preventative exercises. Check out this ‘Know Your Risk’ quiz from Osteoporosis Canada and make an appointment to talk to your doctor about your bone health, and maybe schedule a bone mineral density test, which is simple and painless: