Looking after your bones

You can make changes to your lifestyle to improve your bone health and reduce your risk of osteoporosis. These changes are helpful for everyone, not just people affected by cancer.

It is important to eat well to keep your bones strong and healthy. This means having a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, and some protein, starchy foods (carbohydrates) and dairy products. Your diet should include foods that are rich in calcium. These include dairy products, tinned oily fish, leafy green vegetables, nuts, soya and dried fruits.

Vitamin D helps your body to absorb more calcium. Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, but you can also get it from foods such as oily fish, red meat, liver or egg yolks. You can also buy vitamin D supplements in supermarkets or pharmacies.

Giving up smoking and cutting down how much alcohol you drink can also improve your bone health.

Physical activity makes your bones stronger and improves your co-ordination and balance. If you are not used to exercise, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise programme.

Different ways to improve your bone health

There are changes you can make to improve your bone health and reduce your risk of osteoporosis. These changes are helpful for everyone, so your family and friends can benefit from them too.

Eat well

Eat a balanced diet. In particular, make sure you eat foods that contain calcium and vitamin D. This will help keep your bones strong and healthy.

A balanced diet includes:

  • lots of fruit and vegetables
  • some foods that are rich in protein, such as meat, fish, soya beans and lentils
  • starchy foods (carbohydrates), such as rice, bread, pasta, potatoes and whole grains
  • milk and dairy products, such as yoghurt and cheese
  • only a small amount of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

We have more information about healthy eating and cancer.


Public health bodies in the UK recommend most adults should have 700mg of calcium a day. If you have osteoporosis, your doctor may advise having 1,000mg a day.

Eat foods that are rich in calcium, such as:

  • dairy products (these contain the highest amounts of calcium)
  • tinned oily fish where you eat the bones (sardines are particularly high in calcium)
  • leafy green vegetables, for example broccoli and curly kale
  • nuts
  • soya beans, tofu, kidney beans and baked beans
  • dried fruit, for example figs, apricots and raisins.

If you have a dairy-free diet, make sure you eat non-dairy foods that contain calcium. You may also choose to have products with added calcium. These include some types of fortified non-dairy milks and orange juice. Always shake the carton well before use. This ensures the calcium mixes throughout the drink.

Some foods and drinks upset the calcium balance in the body. Avoid large amounts of them. They include:

  • caffeine
  • red meat
  • salt
  • fizzy drinks that contain phosphates, such as cola.

The National Osteoporosis Society has more information about the amount of calcium in specific foods.

Get enough vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It is important to get enough of it to maintain healthy bones and muscles.

Sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D. In the UK, exposing your skin to sunlight daily between 11am and 3pm from May until September increases vitamin D levels. It is recommended that adults get ten minutes of sun on bare skin (without sunscreen) once or twice a day depending on their skin type. But take care not to burn, especially during strong sunshine. On cloudy days, it will take longer than ten minutes to get enough vitamin D.

We only get a small amount of vitamin D from the food we eat. But it is important to include vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, such as:

  • oily fish
  • red meat
  • liver
  • egg yolks.

Some breakfast cereals and fat spreads have vitamin D added to them. You can check the labels to find out.

During the winter months, when sunlight levels are low, it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone. Because of this, government advice is for people to consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg (800 IU) of vitamin D.

The government advises that people who are more likely to have low levels of vitamin D consider taking a vitamin D supplement all year round. This includes people who:

  • cover their skin when outside
  • have dark skin, from African, African-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds
  • do not spend regular time outdoors every day, such as people who are housebound or in a care home.

You can buy vitamin D supplements from supermarkets, health food stores and pharmacies. If you are unsure what to buy, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.

If you are having cancer treatment that increases the risk of osteoporosis, your GP or hospital doctor may prescribe vitamin D and calcium supplements for you.

Don’t smoke

If you smoke, giving up will be good for your bones and your general health. We have more information about giving up smoking and tips to help you quit.

Keep to alcohol guidelines

If you drink alcohol, stick to recommended guidelines. Current drinking guidelines recommend that men and women drink no more than two units of alcohol a day or 14 units a week.

One drink is not the same as one unit of alcohol. As a guide:

  • a single measure (25ml) of spirits contains one unit
  • half a pint of standard strength (3% to 4%) beer, lager or cider contains one unit
  • half a pint of stronger (5%) beer, lager or cider contains one and a half units
  • a standard glass of wine (175ml) contains two units
  • a large glass of wine (250ml) contains three units.

Drinking large quantities of alcohol in one session (binge-drinking) is thought to be worse for your health than drinking a small amount each day. It is also recommended that you have a couple of alcohol-free days each week.

Get physically active

Most of us need to reduce the amount of time we spend sitting and get more active.

Physical activity and strength training makes bones stronger. It can also improve your co-ordination and balance, which makes you less likely to fall. Falls are a common cause of fractures, especially as people get older.

If you haven’t exercised much before, you will need to start slowly. Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise programme. This is especially important if you have, or are at risk of, osteoporosis. Your GP can tell you if there are any exercises you should avoid. They can also tell you if there are any exercise schemes in your area. We have more information about how exercise can improve your bone health.

I am limited in what exercise I can do, but I still try to do little bits of movement. Especially weight-bearing exercise because that will keep the bones strengthened.


Back to Bone health

The bones

The human body is made up of more than 200 bones, it is important to keep them healthy.