Like the trunk and branches of a tree that decide its size and shape, your bones give form to your body. They also protect your organs and support your muscles, helping you move through life.

Take care of your bones with proper diet and exercise, as well as with the right vitamin and mineral supplements. When you do, you keep your skeleton strong and healthy, heading off osteoporosis and fractures.

Day in and day out, your body exchanges calcium between your bones and your blood stream. But by your late 20s, you've reached the peak of your bone mass, which begins to ebb slowly in your 30s as more bone tissue is lost than restored. In time, this could lead to osteoporosis, a condition marked by weak bone and caused by a loss of bone mass, as well as by a change in bone structure, according to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR).

About 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and 80 percent of them are women, the National Osteoporosis Foundation says. About 34 million more have below-normal bone density that has not reached the level of osteoporosis. Women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, in part because men have larger, stronger bones.

Both men and women older than 50 are at the greatest risk for developing osteoporosis, the ACR says. One in two women and one in six men in this age group will fracture a bone because of osteoporosis. Ethnic group also plays a role: People who are white or Asian are more likely to develop osteoporosis than people who are Hispanic or African American.

Besides older age and ethnic background, these are risks factors that increase your chances for developing osteoporosis, according to the ACR:

  • Small bone structure

  • Family history of osteoporosis

  • Previous facture, especially after age 50

  • Being postmenopausal

  • Anorexia nervosa

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Not getting adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Certain medications, including glucocorticoids, thyroid hormone replacement and epilepsy drugs

Diagnosing osteoporosis

If your health care provider suspects that you have osteoporosis, a simple, painless test to measure bone mineral density can confirm it. The test is called dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA.

If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, a number of medications are available to treat it, including bisphosphonates and calcitonin. Talk to your provider about the type of treatment that's best for you.

Preventing osteoporosis

You can take steps to help prevent osteoporosis:

  • Get 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium each day

  • Get 400 to 800 international units of vitamin D each day

  • Quit smoking

  • Don't overindulge in alcohol

  • Talk to your health care provider about medical conditions or medications you take that could put you at risk for osteoporosis.

Exercises to build your bones

Any weight-bearing activity helps build bones. But weightlifting does the most to prevent osteoporosis over time "because it increases your strength and muscle mass, as well as bone density," says Timothy G. Lohman, Ph.D., exercise physiology core director at Arizona Health Sciences Center. He recommends that you:

  • Talk with your doctor. Do this before you start any exercise program. Ask about consulting a physical therapist or trainer to help you make the most of your workout.

  • Schedule 30 minutes a day, two to three times a week. Anything less won't work your bones hard enough. But don't overdo it: Ask your doctor about your workout's intensity.

  • Warm up. Do light aerobic exercises and easy stretches for seven to 10 minutes before your workout to avoid injury.

  • Focus on the hip, spine and lower back. These are the main fracture sites. "The leg press, squats and lunges are all good."

  • Do fewer reps at heavier weights. "If you can barely do two sets of six to eight reps, you're at the right weight," says Dr. Lohman. He suggests 20 to 25 minutes of weight training.

  • Gradually add to that weight. Determine the highest number of reps you can do or the most weight you can lift. Then shoot for 70 to 80 percent of that maximum capability.

  • Do cardio weight-bearing exercises. To head off osteoporosis, row, bike, hike or dance for at least seven to 10 minutes of your workout. Double that if you want an aerobic workout.

  • Cool down. Repeat your warm-up routine for about five minutes, to shift your body back to relative inactivity.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Bhattacharyya, Tim MD] Last Annual Review Date: 2008-02-23T00:00:00-07:00 Copyright: Copyright Health Ink & Vitality Communications

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Women ages 19 to 50 need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium every day. Younger women and women older than 50 need even more.