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Health Hack #46 - Exercising and Eating Towards Longevity

The Importance of Bone Density

The story is all too common. An elderly relative trips and falls. He or she breaks a hip and finds themself in the hospital. The event marks the beginning of a sharp decline in health, with already compromised immunity creating serious hurdles in any road to recovery. Suddenly other ailments that were previously in check become exacerbated by the injury and all of its ramifications (hospital stay, medications, inactivity, etc.), and the fall marks the tipping point for the death of a loved one.

As human beings, we endure a natural progression towards frailty. We’re taught to “drink our milk” as kids (more on this later), as means of strengthening our newly formed bone structure. From birth to our mid-twenties, we’re largely in a bone formation phase. This makes sense, since this is the only period of life where we’re physically growing.

By age 25, we begin the process of bone breakdown, but fortunately this typically keeps pace with mild bone formation. This continues until around age 50, but by the time we surpass 50 (some would argue it's more closer to age 40), bone breakdown - also known as bone “resorption” - begins to outpace bone formation. Unless robust measures of intervention are undertaken, Grandpa just simply isn’t the physical specimen that he was 40 or even 20 years earlier. This is simply an unfortunate fact of life across all species, which is that we lose vitality as we get closer and closer to the end of our life cycle.

Osteoporosis is a condition that most often manifests itself later in life, but is largely rooted in our lifestyles beginning at a very early age (there may be genetic predispositions that render lifestyle interventions more or less futile; for the sake of this article, we’re not focused on these rare circumstances). Osteoporosis is a condition marked by the body’s inability to keep new bone formation in healthy tandem with natural bone loss. Without employing active resistance, at a certain age we’ll all begin losing this battle to some degree, but osteoporosis represents that in extreme. Thankfully, osteoporosis is largely avoidable when preventative measures are taken in our younger years.

Exercise Suggestions for Improving Bone Density

Nothing builds bone density quite like resistance training. Exercise comes in a variety of ways, but not all of those benefit us in this particular department. Resistance implies a force applied against the movement we’re enduring. Weightlifting, therefore, represents the beacon of training for bone health optimization.

Weightlifting has a strange rap. Most gym floors are filled with men. It carries connotations like “meathead” and is often tied (sometimes accurately, but often erroneously) to vanity. It’s also not unusual to find it compartmentalized in the overall realm of physical fitness. “I’m a runner, not a weightlifter,” as though the two are mutually exclusive? A proper fitness protocol should obviously suit our interests and benefit us now, but we should also be thinking about the future. Building muscle is a road to building stronger bones. These bones are the building blocks of our bodies, and they’re often the very things that give way on us first as we age, kickstarting a cascade of negative consequences. In the realm of weightlifting, compound movements like squats provide the most potent benefit, but in the context of improving bone density, all forms of weightlifting are beneficial. Just be sure to practice safely and under the supervision of a coach or trainer if you’re new to the sport.

It’s important to note that resistance training need not imply weights. Some of us are disinterested. Others have no access. These folks need not worry. Consider the strength and physique of a world class gymnast. Most appear to be carved out of stone. Interestingly, weight training isn’t often part of their exercise protocol. Resistance against gravity and one’s own body weight provides a more than ample force for compelling muscle growth, as well as the strengthening of our connective tissue. Place the average weight lifter in a gymnastics protocol and they lack the learned strength to perform even the most basic of gymnastic feats, such as the “L-sit.” Take the average gymnast and place them in the gym, however, and it’s not uncommon for them to bench press twice their body weight (a feat of accomplishment only achievable to the uppermost echelon of lifters), despite possessing no lifting experience. If we can find ways of applying resistance against the floor, or the bar, or the band, then we don’t necessarily need to be holding hunks of metal to reap these bone-related benefits.

Most pursuits under the umbrella of cardio exercises that can be done without machines also contribute well to our bone health. The easiest starting point is walking. The force of each step off the earth against gravity is a mild strengthener that is amplified when more and more distance is accrued. We can take this up a notch by jogging. Take it step further by hiking, jogging uphill, or running sprints. We’re really building overall hip and leg strength via these exercises, and the effects emanate all the way down to the bone.

Ironically, very long distance pursuits that might be classified as endurance activities aren’t the best hacks for this purpose. We often view Triathlon competitors as representing the bastion of good health, but that varies depending upon your definition. If the marathon we’re training for is life, long distance jogging and competitive cycling may not be our best friends. In essence, these ultra-endurance athletes may be speeding up the process that they may actually wish to delay, that of hemorrhaging bone mass prematurely. One need only see the physique of the average ultra marathon runner or Tour de France cyclist to deduce that the frailty embodied is not all that unlike the diminutive stature one naturally begins to assume while entering old age. It is desirable to be lean, yes, but there is a limit for how far we go. The theories for the reasons behind these adverse bone effects are twofold: first, particularly with cycling, the bone stress element of the exercise is significantly toned down and secondly, the propensity to lose calcium through sweat is dramatically increased. As we’ll see momentarily, calcium is the literal backbone for maintaining good bone health via nutrition.

Eating Suggestions for Improving Bone Density

The power of Vitamin D cannot be stressed enough. We devoted our entire inaugural blog article to the subject (Health Hack #1) and have touched on it numerous times since, namely regarding it’s immune boosting properties (Health Hack #23). As it turns out, Vitamin D levels dictate our body’s ability to utilize calcium stores optimally. We need calcium for overall bone health and further bone development, but unless we’re getting adequate sunlight, consuming dietary Vitamin D, and/or supplementing if low on sun and D-rich foods, then all of the calcium in the world won’t be of much use. So as a very foundational recommendation, we should all be intently focused on acquiring Vitamin D.

The calcium topic harkens back to the childhood ads recommending milk. Good for our bones, good for our teeth. Why? Due to its richness in calcium. Calcium rich foods nourish our bones and make us less brittle. Chickens will actually eat oyster shells (yes, cringeworthy to think about) due to their abundance of calcium as means of hardening the shells of the eggs they lay, as diminished shell firmness can lead to gastrointestinal distress for the laying hen. It’s often enlightening to turn towards nature for wisdom given how complex and convoluted our food choices have become in our modern era, with literally thousands upon thousands of items sold in a tiny grocery store.

While dairy isn’t the only way to find calcium in one’s diet, it is one of the best ways. In addition to milk, yogurt and cheese are great options. If dairy isn’t your thing, seafood is another great option. Fortunately, like dairy, there’s no need to seek out anything too exotic. Most of the more common seafood options happen to be the richest in calcium. Shrimp, crab, and salmon are nice and high, as are tuna, oysters, and sardines. Vegans need not fret, though, since not every high-calcium food is derived from animals. Leafy greens are quite rich, namely kale and spinach. The same is true for leafy vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. Basically any vegetable that grows above ground and sprouts leaves is likely to be high in calcium.

Conveniently, most foods rich in Calcium also happen to be rich in Vitamin D. This is especially true of dairy and fish. The key differentiator is apparent in non-animal foods. Whereas we find high calcium concentrations in leafy vegetables, Vitamin D is best found in Mushrooms. Eggs are a great source of Vitamin D if you’re vegetarian and tofu does the trick on the vegan protein front.

At the end of the day, it can be helpful to take a longview with respect to the choices we make regarding how we treat our bodies. While we may or may not see or feel an immediate impact, there may very well be downstream benefits for the decisions we make today. For whatever reason, the importance of maintaining quality bone density isn’t often discussed. Maybe it’s just a bit too granular or unsexy. Hopefully some of the stereotypes surrounding weight lifting and healthy diets geared towards bone optimization begin to dissolve sometime soon. “You spend all that time exercising. You’re married. Not much pressure to have rock hard abs. What’s the point?” Well, the point is to live longer and to live better...and who doesn’t want that?

Get Strong, Stay Strong