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The impromptu TED Talk I gave to my 9-year-old daughter about bone health.

A few weeks ago, my 9-year-old daughter was complaining about her school Games lessons, which she thinks are too frequent. “Why do they make us do it?” she whined.

One of the things I love most about being a mum is that I get to share stuff with my children that was never shared with me, stuff that may have made me approach or experience things differently. I leapt at the opportunity to run through the many benefits of physical activity. But rather than a generic mental/physical health spiel, I chose to chat to her about her bones.

I didn’t really give my bones much thought until I trained as a fitness coach in my thirties. Raised in a generation which was introduced to exercise as a means of being skinny and where the six-pack reigned supreme as a sign of healthiness, I certainly didn’t make any link between exercise and bone health. And I certainly don’t remember anybody ever talking to me about my bone health, either.

Here’s the gist of what I explained. What I wish I had known much earlier in life.

Bone mass peaks by our mid-thirties

Bone is living tissue that changes continually, with new bone added and old bone taken away. It’s a bit like a savings account, with regular deposits and withdrawals. Through childhood and early adulthood our bodies make more bone than they take away, meaning our bone mass increases. This, I told her, is what’s happening in her body right now; her young body is primed to make as many deposits as possible, for her to draw on through her life. But by our early thirties, things balance out, with our bone mass reaching its peak. This, I explained, is the stage I’m at, aged 39. I explained to her that, from here, the balance can tip, with bone removal outpacing formation. We don’t want this, because it can put us at risk of bone fractures.

Physical activity helps to build healthy bones

And what can help to build healthy bones? Physical activity (i.e. those annoyingly frequent Games lessons).

Movement is the product of our muscles pulling on our bones. This is a stress. The cells in the bones respond to that stress by making the bones stronger and denser - how clever is that?!

There are two categories of physical activity that are particularly beneficial. First; weight-bearing exercise with impact. We are weight-bearing when we're standing. This forces us to work against gravity. Think walking, hiking, jogging, playing tennis, dancing, skipping and jumping (or in my daughter’s case and the source of her complaints; hockey). While swimming and bicycling are great for cardiovascular health, they are not weight-bearing.

Second; full-body, progressive resistance training. Resistance training is where we make our muscles contract against external resistance (which can come from our bodyweight, dumbbells etc, or resistance bands). Think exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows and push ups. By progressive, I mean that as things start to feel too easy, we make things more challenging. This ensures our bodies continue to adapt.

Women are at higher risk of increased bone loss than men

A key reason why I wanted to have this chat with my daughter is because women are at higher risk of increased bone loss than men. She herself will one day be a woman at higher risk of increased bone loss than her male counterparts.

In our bodies, I explained, we have a hormone called oestrogen. Oestrogen is protective of our bones, helping to maintain bone density. As we get older, the levels of oestrogen in our bodies drop, and we can lose a lot of bone mass as a result. The healthier the balance of our savings account when we reach this stage, the better a position we’re in.

So, that’s what happens if I’m your mum and you complain that your school forces you to do Games too regularly. She hasn’t complained about Games since, which may be because she doesn’t want to risk another TED talk from me, but which I hope is because she took on board at least some of what I explained and is buoyed on by the thought of her bone savings account.

I didn’t hit her up with any stats, but here are a few just for you.

  • A woman can lose up to 20% of her bone density during the 5-7 years following menopause, which happens on average at the age of 51.

  • 1 in 2 women over 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis, a so-called "silent disease" which occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone or both. If you want tio find out more about osteoporosis, this is a great site.

  • A woman's risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.

Other modifiable factors for bone health

Beyond physical activity / games lessons and not covered in my chat with my daughter, there are other lifestyle factors we can try to change in order to maximise our bone health and help to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis:-

  • Nutrition plays a key role. We should all aim to consume a nutrient-rich diet with sufficient calcium, Vitamin D, protein and healthy fats.

  • We should avoid smoking, or look to quit if we are smokers.

  • We should drink alcohol only in moderation.

  • During peri-menopause, we should explore Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) with our GP. This can help to prevent bone loss and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and breaking bones.

If reading this blog has made you itchy to get into resistance training, please take a look at my LIFT strength and conditioning programme. Each month I take you through a balanced, progressive training programme, which you can work through from the comfort of your home, with personal check-ins from me along the way. Check out my plans here - your bones will certainly thank you for it.

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