Good posture will do more to keep you looking youthful as the years go by and the benefits of maintaining your bone health are much more than skin-deep.
Although a stooped posture may seem to go hand in hand with old age, you can help prevent the characteristic rounding of the spine that is often caused by osteoporosis and the destruction of the vertebrae in the upper and middle spine.
Here are 10 tips to keep you standing tall at any age.
Open up - Now that many of us spend our days hunched in front of a computer, "it's very important for us to be able to stretch and open up and improve our range of motion," says Jonathan F. Bean, MD, MS, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School in Boston. To stay limber, try to get up for a couple minutes every half hour and stretch, walk, or stand.
Easy exercises - Try this exercise: Every morning and night, lie down on the floor and make slow "snow angels" with your arms for two or three minutes. For an extra challenge, roll up a towel and put it on the floor underneath your spine. Many gyms have half foam rollers—a tube cut in half lengthwise—that you can use for even more of a stretch. But do these stretches slowly and stop if you feel anything worse than mild discomfort or pain, says Dr. Bean. "You want to work up to that, you want to make sure that you first get the flexibility."
Sit straight - When you do have to work at a desk, "sitting up with good, tall posture and your shoulders dropped is a good habit to get into," says Rebecca Seguin, PhD, an exercise physiologist and nutritionist in Seattle. This can take some getting used to; exercise disciplines that focus on body awareness, such as Pilates and yoga, can help you to stay sitting straight, Seguin says. Make sure your workstation is set up to promote proper posture.
Strengthen your core - Pilates and yoga are great ways to build up the strength of your "core"—the muscles of your abdomen and pelvic area. These muscles form the foundation of good posture, and a strong core can have many other benefits, from improving your athletic performance to preventing urinary incontinence.
Say om - In addition to helping to increase body awareness and core strength, yoga is an excellent way to build and maintain flexibility and strengthen muscles throughout your body, Dr. Bean says. Start practicing yoga gradually and listen to how your body responds, he points out. Make sure your yoga teacher is sensitive to your needs and abilities, and available for feedback. Hatha or restorative yoga are good places to start if you're a beginner.
Support your spine - After menopause, women may have more weakening in the muscles around the spine than aging men do, Dr. Bean says. Exercises targeting the back extensors, neck flexors, pelvic muscles, and side muscles are crucial. Trainers at gyms can help; there are even special machines that target these muscles. Endurance in the spine and trunk muscle groups is important too, according to Dr. Bean; "that's what allows us to stand up for long periods of time without our back hurting us."
Lift weights - The vertebral compression fractures that subtract from our height—and can lead to the "dowager's hump" in the upper back that's a hallmark of old age—are due to the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. Women—and men—can prevent these changes with weight-bearing exercises, like walking, stair climbing, and weight lifting. "People who walk regularly through their whole lives tend to have better bone density than sedentary people," Seguin explains.
Vitamin D - Vitamin D is essential for bone health, and may help us maintain our muscles too. Try to get it from a healthy diet. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization, found that most of us get enough vitamin D from food and sunlight without taking supplements. The recommended dietary intake for vitamin D is 600 IU a day for women up to age 70 and 800 IU for women older than 70.
Eat healthy - We all know the bone benefits of calcium. It is recommended that women 19 to 50 years old get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. For older women, it's 1,200 milligrams. But again, it may be best to get calcium from food rather than supplements. The recent Institute of Medicine report found that most people, except adolescent girls, get enough calcium from their diet. In addition, studies have shown that people taking calcium supplements have higher rates of heart attacks and kidney stones. Talk with your physician about whether or not you need to take supplemental calcium.
Consider medication - Your doctor will be able to tell you whether you need a bone mineral density scan to detect osteopenia or osteoporosis. Although Seguin says that activities like progressive resistance training can halt or reverse bone loss in some cases, medications may also help. These include bisphosphonates like Boniva, Reclast, and Fosamax. (Although safe, such drugs can increase the risk of rare fractures or other problems.) Hormone-based medications that can help build bone density include Evista (raloxifene), calcitonin, and parathyroid hormone.