Young bones should be good bones, right? Probably the best quality you’ll ever have during your lifetime. But even during childhood and adolescent, bones need care – encompassed in the knowledge that not only must they last you for a lifetime, but they are also very breakable – and if not built with awareness, they may fail you in your older years. Building strong bones in childhood forms the foundation for bone health throughout life.

During childhood and well into adolescence, bones are building. In fact you only reach your strongest bone density at the end of your second decade. Over time, bone density diminishes as a natural part of ageing. And as bones become more fragile, the risk of fracture increases unless you have ensured a solid foundation in the early years of development. So the more you invest in bone health when young, the more likely those bones will serve you well into old age.

Thinking ahead

This is probably the most difficult part about caring for bones. When you’re young and active, it’s hard to think how your life may change when you’re old, and how this may affect your bones. But building strong bones when younger is easy – it’s simply a matter of diet and exercise. The latter is relatively easy because most young people are involved in some kind of exercise or sport. Diet-wise you need a good diet high in calcium and plenty of Vitamin D from as many as possible daily doses of sunshine.

Calcium is the essential mineral for our bone development, and our bodies can’t produce it on our own. We need to consume it through our diet. Although milk is excellent, there are non-dairy sources of calcium that are also highly recommended: beans, some nuts and seeds, and leafy green vegetables.

Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is required in adequate amounts for the body to be able to absorb calcium. One sure way to obtain enough Vitamin D is through sun exposure between 10am and 3pm. Nutritional sources of Vitamin D include fish high in fat, like salmon or tuna, and foods fortified with Vitamin D, including dairy products and cereals.

Just as muscles grow stronger with use, so do bones. One hour of physical activity a day is recommended. In particular, weight-bearing exercises such as walking, jumping, climbing and running all help to promote bone growth.

Doctors and dietitians recommend food as the primary source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as calcium. However, general tablet-taking can also be helpful. Another aspect to consider is to replace common foods with high-calcium versions such as calcium-fortified orange juice instead of regular juice. Fortified cereals can also help meet daily requirements.

During the teen years (ages 13 – 19).
While it is not as easy to build bone during the later teen years as during early adolescence, this stage still offers substantial opportunity. Nearly a quarter of all bone is formed during the years of the adolescent growth spurt, and half of the bone mass you will build during your life is laid down from puberty through the teen years. This is the time for exercise and good nutrition. During these years when the body is still growing and developing, it is wise to consume at least the RDA of all essential nutrients through the use of supplements as necessary.

Discuss the importance of bone health early on.
Fad diets when young are rarely any good. Any diet that cuts out dairy products or other sources of calcium or Vitamin D, may present cause for alarm, since those nutrients are vital to bone health during the younger phases of development. It is good during the teen years to have sound discussions about the benefits of establishing a healthy eating pattern.

Prevention begins in childhood.

The earlier the bone-building years are acknowledged, the better. You have to hope that your parents had your bones in mind early on. However, with your own children keep that vital development phase top of mind.

  • As children grow, their bone mass increases until it reaches what is called peak bone mass (PBM).
  • PBM is the greatest amount of bone an individual can attain, and is reached in the late teens to mid 20’s.
  • Children and adolescents who have higher PBM are more likely to reduce their risk of osteoporosis later in life.
  • Always emphasize the importance of healthy life-style choices, including avoiding smoking and underage alcohol consumption. Both these practices are harmful to bones.
  • Protect your child’s skin with sunscreen, clothing, and shade. Too much sun raises the risk for skin cancer later in life. So you have to do a balancing act between what may be a danger, but is also an imperative for building bones.
  • Encourage children to exercise. Sitting for hours in front of a cell phone is so bad. Activities like walking, running, jumping, and climbing are especially good for building bone.
  • Weight-bearing activities are extremely important. These help us to use the force of our muscles and gravity to put pressure on our bones. The pressure makes the body build up stronger bone. Activities like riding a bike and swimming don’t create this weight-bearing pressure. They are great for overall body health, but children from a fairly young age can certainly benefit from some weight-bearing exercises.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

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