Better bone health begins when you lighten your load

In our day-to-day routines, many of us habitually act in ways that have profound, long-term effects on our bone health — without even realizing it! Some people regularly spend an hour at the gym or go for a run in the early morning — unknowingly giving wonderful benefits to their bones. Other people routinely spend hour after hour late at night in front of a computer screen instead of sleeping, knowing that the double espresso they buy every morning will clear out the cobwebs — but completely unaware of the stresses this habit places on their skeleton. Still others exercise and get adequate rest, but work under highly stressful conditions and unwittingly deplete their bone mineral reserves by eating a quick fast-food lunch at their desk every day.

All habits, good or bad, can affect our bones

But where the bad habits are concerned, we often don’t realize that the effects are cumulative — they add up over time — or that multiple lifestyle factors can eventually form a very heavy burden on our bones. The image below, showing the burdens that lifestyle, diet, and other factors place on our bones, might be something of a wake-up call to some people!

Camel burdens

Total load model of bone-depleting factors ©2009. Please click on the image for a printable version.

To a certain extent, an otherwise healthy person can offset some of his or her unhealthy habits by eating good food and making sure to get the full spectrum of essential nutrients for bone health. But if you’ve had a fracture, a diagnosis of osteoporosis or osteopenia, or even simply reached the understanding that you need to improve your bone health, developing healthy lifestyle habits is a crucial step in the right direction.

By now, nearly everyone understands that smoking cigarettes, eating a lot of fatty, sugary foods, and drinking to excess are unhealthy habits. It’s also no secret that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to disease on all levels. Some people even recognize that stress and negative emotions — anger, resentment, fear, grief, and depression — can generate serious health problems, and indeed we find that the people most likely to have thin bones are those who are habitually worried and stressed.

The association between these unhealthy habits and emotional states has been well documented scientifically, and we’ve seen in clinical practice how they can impact bone health (see our article on the causes of osteoporosis). But even if you know you have these factors, what can you do about them? How do we change ingrained habits and emotions, particularly if they’ve been with us a long time?

A bone-building program you can live with

The first step to changing our lifestyles toward a healthier alternative is to recognize the places that need changing. The second step is to understand that it will take time and may not be easy, but if you’re committed to it, you can succeed. True lifestyle change may require months or even years of vigilance. Behavior change does not happen in one step. Rather, we tend to progress through different stages on our way to successful change. Also, each of us progresses through the stages at our own rate.If you are looking for ways to improve your bone health, our “total load model” of bone depleting factors can be helpful. Click on the image of the overloaded camel for a printer-friendly version and print it out.

Take a few minutes to look at all of the bone-depleting lifestyle factors this camel carries, and circle the ones that apply to you. These are the factors that might be affecting your bone health. Identify one factor you would like to work on first — one straw you would like to take off your “camel’s back.” Next, jot down three to five reasons why altering this lifestyle factor would be good for your bones and your entire body.

Finally, develop a simple action plan — for example, decide that, beginning today, you will walk 15 minutes twice a day, or include 1 cup of vegetables with every lunch, or lower your coffee intake to one cup a day and use green tea as an alternative beverage if you really need caffeine. Develop a simple approach that makes one change at a time and notice how empowering this feels. You will find that each small life-supporting change builds on the others to help you build bone strength the way nature intended.

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