Strong Bones at Every Age

Keep your bones and joints as strong as your muscles (at every age!) with these expert-backed strategies.

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Chances are that when you hear the phrase “bone and joint health,” your mind begins to wander. After all, strong bones and joints are only for older women to worry about, right?

Wrong. By the time you’re 18, you’ve already acquired nearly all your adult bone mass. Now, as an active woman, it’s your job to take care of your bones and joints in your 20s, 30s and 40s so that you don’t become one of the statistics. Some 44 million Americans now have low bone mass or osteoporosis and 27 million Americans have osteoarthritis, according to the National Institutes of Health. But when you maintain strong bones and joints as a young woman, you’re not only investing in later protection against these diseases – you’re also preventing the stress fractures and other injuries that could happen in the immediate future and keep you sidelined from the gym for weeks or even months. “Adult women who take care of their bones can reduce fracture rates by 25 percent,” says Jennifer Haas, MS, RD, a dietitian at Nova Medical Group in Virginia.

“Bones are like a bank account,” says Shreyasee Amin, MD, MPH, a physician and associate professor of medicine and researcher who studies osteoporosis and osteoarthritis from Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic. “As you get older, you’re going to be losing bone, or withdrawing from this account. So when you’re young, you want to keep as much in that account as possible.”

Adult women who take care of their bones can reduce fracture rates by 25 percent

Here’s how to keep your bones and joints from going bankrupt — at any age.

Perform Weight-Bearing Exercise

Bone china may belong on a shelf, but your bones belong in the gym. A University of Michigan review found that weight-bearing exercises, such as running, jumping and strength training are the best types of physical activity for bone health.

“There’s a keen connection between muscle contractions and bone strength,” explains Ronald Zernicke, PhD, the lead author of the Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach report that examined more than 50 years of research on exercise and bone health. “When your muscles are tasked, they’re stimulating the bones themselves too.”

Weight train three days or more a week, says Zernicke. For example, dedicate one day to the upper body, one day to the lower body and one day to the back and core. Once you’ve built up strength, perform powerlifting moves such as bench presses and squats — these exercises with fast, explosive concentric contractions and slow eccentric contractions can be more effective than other strength training moves.

Also add jumping activities such as skipping rope, plyometrics and tennis one or two days a week. These movements with high-strain magnitudes and rates can be more beneficial to bones than non-weight bearing activities like cycling and swimming. (If you’re injured, however, these sports may be wiser choices.)

Go running at least a few days a week as well, with interval training that incorporates brief rests of at least 10 seconds each. Research suggests that exercise with rest intervals is more effective for maintaining healthy bones. “Rather than constant pounding, interval training lets your bone cells recover and then go back to responding when loaded,” he says.

Exercise is also one of the best ways to ease joint pain, found Netherlands researchers in a new study of 131 patients aged 14 to 40 with knee pain. Simply put, strength training creates muscle mass to take the load off your joints.

Take a Slow and Steady Approach to Fat Loss

Forget crash diets, which wreak havoc on bone and joint health. “Extreme dieting and rapid weight loss of more than two to three pounds per week involves wasting lean muscle tissue and fluid, namely water,” explains Steven Joyal, MD, of the Life Extension Foundation. This loss of fluid may make you feel good about your progress when you step on the scale, but critical micronutrients essential for bone health, like calcium and magnesium, are being lost.

If you’re trying to lose weight, aim instead for a very gradual reduction in calories and a gradual increase in activity, says Haas. Keep it consistent. “It’s all about balance,” says Haas. “You need to train your muscles as well as cardiovascular system to ensure no one area is weak and other areas must overcompensate, which increases injury risk.”

Train Your Whole Body

It’s tempting to focus on your problem areas, but the best way to prevent injuries (in the near and distant future) and reduce fat is to go for the whole-body approach. Strengthening the core and back will help stabilize your spine, explains Jeffrey Ross, DPM, MD, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) spokesperson. If certain muscle groups are weak, then the joints will be weak, he says. “Plus, if you do happen to get injured, cross-training by exercising other muscle groups can help you stay fit without causing further harm to the injury.”

As the ACSM reports, knee and shoulder injuries affect more than 27 million Americans per year – and this pain can be prevented through exercise. That’s because bone strengthens in response to the load placed on it, explains Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. So, if you ignore parts of the body, you miss the opportunity to strengthen the bones in those areas of the body. For this reason, Oxygen readers need to pay extra attention to whole-body training: Reports show that women, especially those who are active, are much more likely to suffer anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries than men.

There’s another benefit to the whole-body approach. Resistance training involving large, total-body movements like squats and deadlifts builds strong bones in the lower extremities, hip and spine, which are critical areas to target for osteoporosis prevention, according to Joyal. “And by virtue of being total-body exercises, much more weight can be used than puny isolation movements.” So by thinking about bone and joint health today, you’re not only making deposits in your injury prevention account for later, but also you’re getting more bang for your buck now.

Strengthen Your Diet

You know calcium helps keep your skeleton strong, but are you missing other key nutrients? Follow this cheat sheet for optimal bone health.

  • Calcium: Go for 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, says Toby Smithson, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Not only will you keep your bones strong, but studies have shown three servings of lower-fat dairy products also help with weight loss, she says, pointing to skim milk, low-fat cheese and low-fat yogurt.
  • Vitamin D: Recently, an expert committee of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (a national organization that serves as an adviser on how to improve health in the United States) set new vitamin D guidelines, raising them to 600 IUs per day for adults under the age of 70. You’ll find it in fatty fish such as salmon and in fortified milk or speak to your doctor about a supplement.
  • Protein: While there have been claims that too much protein leads to calcium losses, a study published in the March 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that young women who eat a typical, high-protein Western diet (with up to 28 percent of calories coming from protein) do not suffer from bone-density loss.
  • Omega 3s: These fatty acids have been shown to reduce osteoarthritis.

And what you don’t need . . .

  • Caffeine and sodium: Too much can negatively affect bone and joint health; limit yourself to the equivalent of two cups of coffee per day and less than one teaspoon of table salt, says Smithson.
  • Alcohol: People who drink excessively are more likely to get osteoporosis, reports the National Institutes of Health.

What Does Your Period Have to Do With It?

If you’re not getting your period, you could be getting yourself into trouble. As Ohio athletic trainer Kerry Waple, MEd, ATC, CSCS, explains, amenorrhea, or the absence of menstrual periods, is a sign of low estrogen levels, and can lead to osteoporosis. “Some young women who have exercise-induced amenorrhea may have the bone health of an 80 year old,” says Waple. “Avoid overtraining by alternating hard workouts with recovery days. Overtraining has been known to cause amenorrhea, as well as stress fractures.” If you’re still missing periods, see a doctor.