From the time we’re born we begin to build bone strength and mass. The kinds of physical activities we engage in when young determine how strong and dense our bones will be by the time their development peaks at about age thirty-five. So the more exercise you get as a kid and young adult, the denser your bones will be going into your middle and senior years when the natural decline of bone mass begins.

There are many things you can do to ensure that your bones are strong and healthy going into your later years, and once there, lifestyle habits you can adopt to help you preserve and protect your bone health. And, as you might guess, these steps involve a healthy diet and exercise program, so there are extra benefits to your health beyond just your skeleton.

When you’re young (in years), it’s important to get a lot of exercise. So play, and encourage your kids to play. Not video games. Electronic play might result in nimble thumbs, but those won’t do much for the bone strength you’ll need to keep you upright and moving comfortably through your life. So get out there and run, play ball, climb, and jump rope – basically, keep moving. That will get you (or your kids) off to the best start.

Once you’ve reached your peak bone mass in what we used to think of as middle-aged (before we reached and passed it), you’ll want to take steps to protect the bone health you’ve developed.

Weight-bearing exercise is key. That is, exercise that requires you to work against gravity. The easiest and most obvious weight-bearing exercise is walking — briskly if you can. (You are the weight you are bearing, and every step you take is you resisting Earth’s pull.) Other good ways to maintain your overall bone health include:

  • Hiking
  • Climbing stairs (to get from one floor to the next, or with the help of a stair stepper)
  • Dancing
  • Running (if you’re in that kind of shape)
  • Weight lifting (to increase muscle mass and upper body strength)

In addition to helping maintain your bone density, the muscle tone and coordination you will develop by doing these exercises is important for your balance and will help protect you against falls as you get older.

Shoot for getting a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day. More is better, and you’ll find (if you aren’t already someone who regularly exercises), that once you develop the habit, your general well-being and energy will improve so much that you will jealously guard the time you’ve allotted to get out and move.

In addition to exercise, the importance of a healthy diet can never be over-emphasized. Foods rich in calcium and vitamin D are especially good for your bones. Those are:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards)
  • Certain fish, like salmon, trout, and anchovies (think Caesar salad made with dark greens and topped with anchovies or poached salmon)
  • Most cheeses, and certain calcium-fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and some cereals (but watch the sugar)
  • Nuts and seeds (make those California growers happy and enjoy some almonds)
  • Eggs (the yolks)
  • Beans such as cannellini, navy, and especially edamame (enjoy those with your protein- rich sushi dinner!)

About 50% of your bones are made of protein, so getting enough protein is also important. But keep in mind the “all things in moderation” rule, so not too much. A diet too high in protein can actually work against you by leaching calcium from your bones. But studies show that women who consumed more than 60 grams of protein a day (and up to 100 grams) were able to better maintain bone mass than those consuming less than 60 grams a day – even when dieting for weight loss. Protein also helps you maintain muscle. So a diet that includes adequate protein, lots of veggies, and some calcium-rich dairy products is the way to go.

With every “Do” list there is an accompanying “Don’t” list.  Here goes:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t over-consume alcohol

But you knew that, didn’t you?

Eat a variety of whole healthy foods, get out there and move, develop a resistant attitude toward gravity, get strong by lifting weights (leave the cart behind and carry those grocery bags to your car!), dance whenever you can, and enjoy strong and healthy bones into your very, very old age.

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