What can we mere humans learn from elite athletes? When it comes to bone health, there are many useful tips that we can pick up, says Dr Eimear Dolan.
Currently leading a research programme on how exercise and nutrition may influence bone health, Dolan, who studied sport and exercise science at DCU, is based at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.
While her focus is on athletes, she believes we can all learn something from the way athletes protect their bone health.
Bone growth and development is most rapid in childhood and adolescence, with great increases in bone mass, volume and strength during this time. This is when we lay down foundations for the rest of our lives, protecting ourselves against osteoporosis.
After we reach peak bone mass in our late 20s, bone development plateaus and remains mostly stable in adulthood, before starting a slow decline with the onset of ageing. But it’s never too late to increase bone density.
“Healthy lifestyle habits in early life can help you optimise that peak while maintaining these habits throughout your life will prevent the decline," says Dolan.
"Although it may be difficult for older adults to increase bone density, it is never too late to protect and maintain what is already there and to try and prevent further loss. It’s also important to consider that keeping fit, healthy and active will also help protect against falls, which can indirectly help protect against fracture.”
Bones are the framework for our bodies but, because we can’t see them, they’re often ignored until there’s a problem. Bone stress injuries caused by overuse leading to structural damage and localised pain, are not unique to athletes.
Bones - like muscles - add mass when they are loaded, or used, during physical activity. Injuries, such as stress fractures, can happen when the bone is unable to withstand repetitive loading in activities like running.
“The stronger the bone is in the first place, the better it can deal with this loading,” says Dolan.
“Food provides both the building blocks to build bone tissue, as well as the energy required for its metabolism. If you are not getting either sufficient nutrients or energy to support these processes, then the bone can weaken, and be less able to withstand stress, and so could be more susceptible to fracture.”
She identifies physical activity and nutrition as the main components of bone health. “The food we eat provides the building blocks for all our body's tissues, and bone is no exception.”
It’s easy to think, because we’re grown, that our bones are simply our bones but - like the rest of our body - they are in a constant state of change. “Bone is a metabolically active tissue, which is constantly undergoing processes of breakdown and formation. Food, and more specifically nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D and protein, are essential to support this. Additionally, supporting bone [and all other biological processes] requires energy, so it is essential that people are eating enough food to cover all of their energy costs.”
For Dolan, it’s about balance: “We often focus on the dangers of over-eating, but it’s important to understand that under-eating also has health consequences.”
A good diet makes for strong bones and most people are able to get all the necessary nutrients through a balanced diet with plenty of variety.
Dolan’s top three food groups for healthy bones are:
- Dairy - key for bone health
- High-quality protein (for example, lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy, soy)
- Green, leafy vegetables.
For someone who is following a vegan diet and avoiding all animal products including dairy, it is important to make sure that they don’t miss out on calcium, says Dolan: “Ensuring adequate intake of calcium-fortified dairy alternatives is one way that vegans can protect their bones. A wide range of other nutrients is also important for bone health and making sure to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and grains can help make sure all requirements are met. For example, Vitamin K is another important one for bone health and can be obtained from green leafy vegetables."
Exercise is key to maintaining healthy bones. "The bone responds to the loads that are placed on it, and inactivity can lead to bone loss. The athletes most likely to have the strongest bones are those that compete in higher-intensity sports, with plenty of impact and changes in movement patterns.”
But you don’t have to be togging out for the local GAA team to make a difference.
“To protect your bones, try to engage in plenty of vigorous activity that involves small jumps and changes of direction – find something you like – if you don’t like sports, dance can be a great option," says Dolan.
"Your body was made to move, so find the movement that you enjoy the most.”
- For more information on bone health and dairy, see ndc.ie
- Breaking Down and Building Back Up: Bone Health, Injury and Recovery in Athletes, hosted by Sport Ireland Institute in association with The National Dairy Council takes place on Wednesday 20 October. Tickets available from Eventbrite