When you think of optimal health, you might focus on having strong muscles and eating a balanced diet. You might not think too much about your skeleton of bones that make up the skeletal system. But in fact, your bones are a critical part of maintaining good health overall, especially as you age.
The skeletal system is divided into two parts: the axial skeleton and the appendicular skeleton. The axial skeleton consists of the central bones of the head, neck, chest and spine, while the appendicular skeleton refers to the bones of the arms and legs.
The 80 bones of the axial skeleton include:
The skull, also known as cranial bones
The facial and inner ear bones
The vertebrae, rib cage, sacrum and tailbone
The 126 bones of the appendicular skeleton include:
The arms (shoulder blade, collar bone, humerus, radius and ulna) and hands (wrist bones, metacarpals and phalanges)
The legs (femur, kneecap, shinbone and fibula) and feet (tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges)
The feet (tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges)
Some of the functions of the skeletal systems can be overlooked but are key to overall health for the role they play in:
Body movement, support for muscles and carrying your weight evenly
Protecting vital organs including the brain and heart
Producing blood cells in bone marrow
Storage sites for certain vitamins and minerals
While it may not look like it, your bones are actually living tissue. They are breaking down and rebuilding every day, which is why it's so important to give your body the building blocks that are required for optimal bone health.
Not every skeletal system is the same, so it's important to understand what might be unique to yours.
Children's bones are more porous than adult bones, meaning they are less dense and more flexible, with the ability to bend or bow. Adult bones are harder and more brittle, which means they can break more easily. Babies are also born with more bones, and as children grow into adolescence and adulthood, some fuse together.
As people age, cartilage between the joints naturally begins to wear down and can lead to associated conditions. Similarly, if the creation of new bone doesn't grow as quickly as the deterioration of old bone, bones can become weak and brittle and increase the risk of bone fractures. This becomes increasingly common in age related bone conditions linked to a weakened skeletal system.
Male bones are naturally stronger and denser than female bones. Females also tend to lose bone mass faster than males do. Body weight and muscle mass are both attributes that come into play, but while they may be higher in males on average, men need to be just as aware, as they experience a third of all hip fractures.
In healthy individuals, bones break down and build back up every day. The problem occurs when the rate of bone loss exceeds that of bone tissue replacement. People typically begin to see this shift after the age of 40, and most women will lose 0.5% bone mass a year. The building blocks of bones include the protein collagen, minerals such as calcium and magnesium and vitamin D. The body needs sufficient stores of these nutrients to maintain optimal bone composition and prevent porous, breakable bones as we age.
Incorporating supportive lifestyle choices and avoiding the common offenders that can lead to weaker bones is a great way to support the health of your skeletal system. Here are some of the things to avoid:
Smoking and excessive alcohol intake
Staying sedentary and not getting enough exercise
A diet high in processed foods and low in nutrients
High-inflammatory foods and chronic stress, which can lead to inflammation and deplete the nutrients needed for bone rebuilding at an increased rate
Excessive intake of sugar, caffeine and salt can all impact calcium levels
Maintaining healthy skeletal muscle through weight-bearing exercises can help support your bones and maintain bone mineral density. To do this you can:
Aim for two to three resistance workouts per week
Spend time outdoors being active
Practice multi-joint compound exercises that can build and strengthen your bones, joints and connective tissue.
It's also critical to optimize your nutrient intake to support and maintain healthy bones. You can:
Prioritize a nutrient dense whole food diet including high quality protein, mineral rich leafy greens and a variety of fruit and vegetables daily
Consider supportive supplementation of key nutrients including calcium and magnesium if you feel you are not getting enough from your diet. Better yet test your individual nutrient stores to find out what is right for you
Aim to get into the sunshine for 20 minutes each day to optimize vitamin D synthesis, or consider supplementing with vitamin D3 - a key player in bone health and overall immunity
Everyone's body is a little different. To understand your body at a deeper level you can comprehensively test your current vitamin and mineral levels and discuss an appropriate protocol tailored just for you to balance your nutrient profile. Plus incorporating supportive lifestyle choices is a sure way to optimize wellness including a healthy skeletal system throughout your life.