Bones are dynamic! Even though they are hard, bones are living and continually changing parts of your body that have cells working on them that are designed specifically to either make new bone or break it down. While it may sound strange that our body would want to break down our own bones, it’s a really important process for keeping the whole entire body healthy! There are a couple of reasons for this, and one is that minerals such as calcium are stored in your bones. Of course, you’ve probably heard this a lot, and heard that calcium is really important for healthy bones. What you may not have heard is that calcium is critically important for many functions taking place in the body, including nervous system activity and muscle contractions, and when your body needs calcium for all of these important things, it is going to have to get it from somewhere. That somewhere is your bones.
“Developing peak bone mass (the most bone mineral possible) in the teenage years through the 30s is the cornerstone of optimal bone health,” says Dr. Dorothy Fink, an endocrinologist and internist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, where she often treats dancers. “There are cells in the body that build bone (osteoblasts) and cells that break it down (osteoclasts). These cells work together every day to keep your bones in the best shape possible.”
Physical activity has a major impact on your bones because they respond to the force of your muscles pulling on them (muscles pull on bones in order to move them!) and to the force of impact when your body weight hits the ground. These forces cause bone to remodel itself so that it can most effectively respond to these stresses, and does so by changing shape and changing density. Density refers to how much of something there is within a given amount of space, so if there is a lot packed into a small space, then we can say it’s very dense. With bone, it’s good to have a high bone mineral density (BMD) because it is correlated with greater resistance to breaks and fractures. A dense bone is not a brittle bone.
What this means is that you can tap your way to a higher BMD! Whenever you do weight-bearing activity, such as dance and especially tap dance or anything with jumps, you are signaling to your bones that they need to be strong to support this kind of force, whether you’re doing a light shuffle or stomping. So those osteoblasts in your bones will get to work, laying more bone down and increasing the density. The more activity you do, the more your body responds.
“Both weight-bearing exercise and strength training exercise is important for bone,” says Dr. Fink. “The trick is that there needs to be a balance between exercise and the fueling process. All exercise and no fuel (restrictive food regimen, limiting important food groups) can be a disastrous recipe for bone health.”
This is precisely why tap dancing alone isn’t enough for bone health. Getting enough nutrients in the foods that you eat is so important, and brings us back to this knowledge that you need to obtain adequate amounts of minerals such as calcium from your diet!
Bones are the storage for these minerals, so when they are needed for other bodily functions, they will be taken away from your bones, leaving them weaker than before if not replaced. The replacements must come from food. As noted by Dr. Fink, “Nutrition has a very important role in bone health. Most of the time, we think of our bones as just part of our structure, the Legos that hold us up. Instead, bones are very much so alive and need to be adequately fueled with food throughout the day.”
There are a few vitamins and minerals in particular that are non-negotiable for bone health. “Our bodies have a million chemical reactions occurring at a given moment,” shares Dr. Fink. “In our bones, calcium and phosphorus combine to form hydroxyapatite. Vitamin D is important in the absorption of calcium [in the gut]. Magnesium and Vitamin K are also important for bone. There is also fascinating research evaluating the effects of our microbiome [in the gut] on bone health. What does this mean for food and bone? You need to eat foods with these vitamin and minerals! I prefer food sources to supplements. It’s definitely doable.”
If the balance of bone being broken down by stress or to obtain minerals starts to exceed to the rate of bone being created or healed, then you can start getting injuries and detrimental conditions of the bone, including stress fractures and premature osteoporosis. You’ll want to pay attention to not just how you’re eating but also how your body feels to make sure you are getting enough rest, allowing time for your body to replenish, including allowing the osteoblasts to do their work and put more calcium back in the bones. And don’t ignore pain. All that tapping places stress on the bones repetitively, and you don’t want to time step your way to a fracture.
By Leigh Schanfein of Dance Informa.