Here’s what you need to know about what really keeps your bones strong for life.
An illustration of doctors working on bones
Credit: Getty Images / sorbetto

Our bones are quite literally the structure our body stands on, and there are 206 of them throughout our body. Especially if you've had a broken or injured bone before, you know firsthand just how important it is to keep them healthy. There are several factors including what we eat that can contribute to the health of our bones. But there is a lot of misinformation out there, too. Here we dive into four common myths about bone health and use science to determine if they're fact or fiction.

1. All exercise is good for bone health.

True. It's well known that resistance workouts like lifting weights are highly effective at keeping bones strong, but a new meta-analysis in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that any type of physical activity is beneficial—everything from swimming and Pilates to walking and dancing. Balance- and coordination-boosting activities like yoga and tai chi may do double duty. In addition to reducing the risk of falls, a study in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation found that a 12-minute regimen of 12 yoga poses designed to target common fracture sites (the spine, hip and femur) increased participants' bone density when practiced daily over a 10-year period. (As always, check with your doctor before starting a new workout regimen, especially if you have osteoporosis.)

2. Bone loss is inevitable as you age.

Sort of true. First, the bad news: for most people, the bone-building years end somewhere between age 25 and 30. "After that peak is reached, bone mass is generally stable until close to age 50, when a steady decline begins," explains Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., a bone metabolism expert at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. But there's still a lot you can do to help preserve your bones after hitting that peak—and that's key "because it enables bone mass to be more stable, as opposed to declining," she notes. Some bone loss is still inevitable with aging, but keeping active, eating a healthy diet, avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol are all good ways to slow it down— and prevent progression to more serious conditions like osteopenia or osteoporosis.

3. Dairy is essential for healthy bones.

Mostly false. It's true that dairy foods generally deliver the highest amounts of calcium per serving, but many nondairy sources are no slouches either. For example, a stir-fry made with tofu, edamame and bok choy can provide about as much calcium as a glass of milk. You may have heard that calcium from plant foods is not absorbed as well, but this is only true with those containing high amounts of oxalic acid (like spinach, rhubarb and beet greens) and phytic acid (particularly beans and legumes). It's not a problem with other vegetables, such as kale, broccoli and bok choy. Meeting the RDA without dairy "takes a commitment to eating lots of vegetables and fruits," admits Dawson-Hughes, "but it's certainly possible." Including calcium-fortified foods like orange juice, cereals and plant-based milks can also help ensure you get a healthy dose.

4. Calcium supplements are dangerous.

False. Start Googling calcium supplements and you'll probably run across some scary news that they can cause kidney stones and potential heart problems. But these sensational stories tend to be based on older studies that used megadoses of calcium. "Most of the kidney stone data comes from the 2006 Women's Health Initiative trial," explains Dawson-Hughes, where study participants were taking as much as 2,100 mg per day from supplements alone—far above the RDA of 1,000 to 1,200 mg for most adults, which could have caused higher concentrations of minerals in their urine. "So it was no surprise to see some stone formation in that context." Most experts agree that smaller doses—think 500 mg or less—are generally safe, and can be a good safety net if you're worried about your calcium intake.