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3 lessons to teach your child about bone health

You sang it to your daughter when she was younger: "The head bone's connected to the neck bone. The neck bone's connected to the shoulder bone. The shoulder bone's connected to …"

Now that she knows her anatomy, you can teach her to keep her bones healthy for life. And that's important to do while she's still growing. Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones become fragile and are more likely to break. Although grade-schoolers aren't affected by it, your daughter will have developed most of her skeletal bone mass by the time she's in her 20s, meaning right now she's building the bones that will last her a lifetime.

Here are the three most important lessons you can teach your daughter about preventing osteoporosis.

1. Stock up on calcium. It promotes bone development and is essential in building strong bones.

You've told her a hundred times to drink her milk. But how do you ensure she's getting enough calcium if every morning she excuses herself from the table before finishing her milk? Don't fret. Milk, while rich in calcium and vitamin D, is not the only game in town. There are plenty of foods that'll get her to the 1,300 milligrams of calcium she needs each day.

"Calcium can be found in other dairy products as well, including cheese, yogurt and ice cream," says Monika M. Cohen, MD, a physician with Northwest Community Hospital. "Other foods that are rich in calcium include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, fish—especially salmon—and calcium-fortified orange juice."

2. Hit the playground. Our bones may not noticeably change like our muscles do when we exercise, but that doesn't mean they don't. Weight-bearing exercise—physical activity in which the body works against gravity—helps builds strong bones. How? Bone is made of living tissue, and when it meets resistance, it forms new tissue to form a sturdier frame.

"The bottom line is that exercise helps to develop peak bone mass, which is established at a young age—the early 20s," Dr. Cohen says. "This is the age where bone is accrued and can potentially have long-term impact on adult fracture risk."

Girls should engage in weight-bearing physical activity every day. And her school's physical education program probably isn't enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 25 percent of high school girls get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week. Some activities that count toward her daily goal include basketball, dancing, hopscotch, jumping rope, karate, tennis and volleyball.

3. Don't smoke. This one likely already is in your portfolio of motherly advice. But it's too important not to mention. "Smoking in teens is associated with lower peak bone mass and increased risk of broken bones in young adults," Dr. Cohen says. "This is related to the negative effect that smoking has on the sex hormones in males and females."

Be sure to adhere to these rules yourself. "Factors that have been shown to have a direct positive influence on teen nutrition and behavior include eating breakfast daily, parents sitting down for meals with children, and offering milk at meals," Dr. Cohen says. "A recent survey study showed that there was a positive association between parents who felt calcium was important for their teen, and the teen's actual calcium intake."

So lead by example. Following this advice yourself is the best way to get your message across.

Monika M. Cohen, MD

Monika M. Cohen, MD

847.459.7860 •

  • Board-Certified: Internal Medicine
  • Special Certification: Bone Densitometry
  • Medical School: University of Illinois
  • Internship and Residency: Lutheran General Hospital

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Last Updated 04/10/2009