Improving Your Bone Health

Time to Read: About 6 minutes

This information explains what osteopenia and osteoporosis are and how you can improve your bone health.

About osteopenia and osteoporosis

Osteopenia and osteoporosis are bone conditions. They affect the health of your bones by making them weaker.

Some people with osteopenia can protect their bone health. They can change their lifestyle habits, follow a healthy diet, and take medicine, if needed. Osteopenia can sometimes lead to osteoporosis.

Osteopenia (OS-tee-oh-PEE-nee-uh) is when your bone mass or bone mineral density is lower than normal. Bone mineral density tells us how much bone mineral there is in a certain amount of bone. It’s a measure of how dense bones are, and how strong they are.

Osteoporosis (OS-tee-oh-puh-ROH-sis) is when you have less bone tissue, and it’s thinner. Your bones become weak and more likely to fracture (break).

Osteoporosis is often called a silent disease. There often are no signs or symptoms in the early stages. If osteoporosis causes your bones to become weaker, you may have symptoms such as:

  • Back pain, often caused by a compression fracture or collapsed vertebra (bone in your back).
  • Loss of your height over time.
  • Bent-over posture or a curved upper back.
  • Broken bones that happen more easily than expected, such as after a minor injury, or when doing everyday activities. These fractures often happen in the spine, hip, ribs, and wrist.

There are 2 kinds of osteoporosis:

  • Primary osteoporosis can be caused by the normal process of aging, menopause (permanent end of menstrual cycles), or both.
  • Secondary osteoporosis can start as a side effect of some cancer treatments, such as taking certain medicines. This kind of osteoporosis may get better once you stop taking the medicine that causes it.

Causes and risk factors of osteopenia and osteoporosis

Your body is always making new bone and getting rid of old bone. Osteoporosis starts when the amount of bone that your body makes is less than the amount of bone that it gets rid of.

Your lifestyle can raise your chance of getting osteoporosis. Examples are:

  • Lack of exercise.
  • Eating a diet low in nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D.
  • Eating a diet high in sodium.
  • Drinking too much alcohol (more than 2 drinks per day for women or 3 drinks per day for men).
  • Having too much caffeine (such as more than 3 cups of coffee a day).
  • Smoking.

Other things can lead to bone loss, such as:

  • Cancer and some cancer treatments.
  • Bone marrow or connective tissue disorders.
  • Diseases that affect levels of hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.
  • Thyroid disorders.
  • Parathyroid disorders.
  • Conditions that create trouble absorbing food and nutrients. Examples are graft versus host disease in your digestive tract, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.
  • Some medicines, such as corticosteroids, heparin, some anticonvulsants, proton pump inhibitors, and methotrexate.
  • Hormonal therapy for prostate (androgen deprivation therapy) and breast cancers (aromatase inhibitors).
  • Going through menopause or taking medicines such as leuprolide (Lupron®) or goserelin (Zoladex®). These stop your ovaries from making estrogen, or stop your testicles from making testosterone.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Being on long-term bed rest and not being active.
  • Being over 65 years old.
  • Having a small frame or low body weight.
  • Being of Caucasian or Asian ethnicity.

Diagnosing osteopenia or osteoporosis

Your doctor may think you’re at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis. They’ll recommend you have a bone density test. This test measures bone density in your wrist, spine, and hip. It’s a painless test that’s like an X-ray but uses much less radiation.

Preventing and managing osteopenia or osteoporosis

There are things you can do to lower your risk of osteoporosis and your risk for fractures.

Lifestyle changes

You can make changes in your lifestyle.

  • If you smoke or use tobacco products, try to quit. MSK has specialists who can help you quit smoking. For more information about our Tobacco Treatment Program, call 212-610-0507.
  • Limit your how much alcohol you drink. Do not have more than 2 drinks a day if you’re a woman and 3 drinks a day if you’re a man.
  • Exercise regularly. For more information, read the “Exercise for Strong Bones” section in this resource.
    • Your doctor may recommend exercises to strengthen your bones and muscles. These may be weight-bearing exercises that help increase bone density. Examples are walking, jogging, and running.
    • Strengthening exercises. Examples are lifting small weights, or strengthening the muscles in your lower back and abdomen (belly).
    • Balance exercises, such as yoga or Pilates, can also improve your strength and flexibility.
    • Always talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. If you have trouble starting an exercise routine, talk with your doctor about whether physical therapy (PT) is right for you.
  • Make sure you have enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet.
    • Most adults need 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium every day. Your doctor or clinical dietitian nutritionist can tell you how much calcium is right for you. The best way to get calcium is through food (see the table “Foods Rich in Calcium”).
      • If you do not get enough calcium from your diet, you may need to take a calcium supplement. Calcium supplements come in a few forms, including calcium carbonate and calcium citrate.
    • Your body also needs vitamin D to absorb and use calcium. Most adults with osteopenia or osteoporosis need at least 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily. How much vitamin D you need may be different. Your doctor or clinical dietitian nutritionist can tell you how much vitamin D is right for you. Although the main source of vitamin D is the sun, you can also get it from food (see the table “Foods Containing Vitamin D”). Your healthcare provider can check your vitamin D levels with a simple blood test.
      • If you’re not getting enough vitamin D, you may need to take a vitamin D supplement. You can buy vitamin D supplements at your pharmacy without a prescription.
      • If you have low levels of vitamin D, your doctor may recommend you take prescription supplements with higher amounts of vitamin D. This can bring your levels up to normal.
  • Talk with your doctor about medicines and hormone therapy treatments.
    • There are prescription medicines that can help prevent and treat osteoporosis. Your doctor will talk with you about your options and prescribe the one best for yous. They’ll go over any instructions for taking your medicine.
    • Medicine and hormones that treat osteoporosis include:
      • Oral medicines, such as risedronate (Actonel®) and alendronate (Fosamax®), that you take by mouth.
      • Injectable medicines, such as denosumab (Prolia®) or romozusomab (Evenity™), that you get as a shot.
      • Intravenous (IV) medicine, such as zoledronic acid (Reclast®), that you get into your vein in your arm.
      • Hormone therapies, including calcitonin, parathyroid hormone type injections (such as Forteo® and Tymlos®), and estrogen replacement therapy.
  • Prevent falls.
    • Make your home safe to prevent falls. Here are some things you can do:
      • Remove throw rugs or attach them to the floor.
      • Install safety rails on stairs and grab bars in your shower or tub.
      • Apply nonskid tape or decals to your shower or tub floor.
      • Make sure the rooms in your house or apartment are well lit.
      • Wear sturdy shoes.
      • Stand up slowly after sitting or lying down, so that your body can adjust to the new position.
      • Use a cane or walker to improve your balance.
      • When you bend over, bend at your knees, not at your waist.
    • For more information about preventing falls, read the resource What You Can Do to Avoid Falling.

Exercise for strong bones

Exercise can help you keep bones strong. It can also lower your risk for falls and fractures.

Talk with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.

High-impact weight-bearing exercises help build up your bones and keep them strong. Examples of high-impact weight-bearing exercises are:

  • Fast dancing
  • High-impact aerobics
  • Hiking
  • Jogging or running
  • Jumping rope
  • Climbing stairs
  • Tennis

Low-impact weight-bearing exercises can also help keep bones strong. They’re also safer for people who cannot do high-impact exercises. Examples of low-impact weight-bearing exercises are:

  • Using elliptical training machines
  • Walking
  • Using a climbing machine, such as a StairMaster® 
  • Riding a bicycle
  • Rowing
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Golf
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Ballroom dancing

Foods rich in calcium

Be sure to check the product labels, because the amount of calcium can vary.

in portion
in portion
Dairy foods
Yogurt, plain, nonfat
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Cheddar cheese1½ ounces307171
Gruyere cheese1½ ounces430176
Parmesan cheese1½ ounces503167
Milk, low-fat
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Milk, whole
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Non-dairy alternatives
Soy milk, plain, calcium-fortified
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Rice milk, plain, calcium-fortified
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Almond milk, vanilla, calcium-fortified
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Sardines, canned in oil, with bones, drained2 sardines9250
Salmon, sockeye, canned, drained4 ounces263189
Ocean perch, Atlantic, cooked4 ounces39109
Mussels, steamed4 ounces37195
Fruits and vegetables
Collards, cooked½ cup13431
Turnip greens, cooked½ cup10429
Kale, cooked½ cup4718
Bok choy (Chinese cabbage), raw1 cup749
Brussels sprouts½ cup2828
Figs, fresh2 medium figs3574
Nuts, beans, and soy
Almonds¼ cup96207
White beans, canned½ cup96150
Edamame (soybeans), prepared½ cup4995
Tofu, firm, prepared with calcium sulfate*½ cup25388
Other foods and beverages
Fortified, ready-to-eat cereals (various)¾ cup to 1 cup250-1,000100-210
Orange juice, calcium fortified1 cup500117
Oatmeal, plain, instant, fortified1 packet prepared98101
Mineral water (e.g., San Pellegrino®, Perrier®)
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Basil, dried1 teaspoon313

*Calcium content is for tofu processed with a calcium salt. Tofu processed with other salts does not really give you calcium.

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Available at: 

Foods that have Vitamin D

Be sure to check the product labels, because the amount of Vitamin D can vary.

Vitamin D in
portion (IU)
Calories in
Cod liver oil1 tablespoon1,360123
Salmon, sockeye, canned, drained4 ounces953189
Ocean perch, Atlantic, cooked4 ounces66109
Tuna fish, light, canned in water, drained4 ounces5397
Sardines, canned in oil, drained2 sardines4650
Orange juice fortified with vitamin D
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Milk, low-fat vitamin D fortified
1 cup
(8 ounces)
Egg, including yolk1 large egg4478
Shitake mushrooms, dried4 mushrooms2344
Chanterelle mushrooms, raw½ cup11421

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Available at: 

Additional Resources

National Osteoporosis Foundation
Provides resources and information on osteoporosis and improving bone health.

Last Updated

Thursday, December 28, 2023

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