Looking after your bones

It is important to look after your bones and there are things that you can do to improve your bone health.

Eating a balanced diet with plenty of calcium (from dairy products, dried fruit and oily fish) keeps bones strong and healthy. Protein from fruit, vegetables and pulses (lentils and beans) is better for your bones than protein from meat. Soy-based products, such as tofu, also improve bone health.

Vitamin D from sunshine, food or supplements helps your body absorb more calcium. Giving up smoking and cutting down alcohol can also improve your bone health.

Gentle exercise makes bones stronger. Physical activity can also improve your co-ordination and balance, making you less likely to fall and get a fracture if you do have weaker bones. Exercises that make you work against gravity (weight-bearing exercise) are particularly good for bone health. These include walking, climbing stairs, dancing and gentle weight lifting.

If you want to make any changes to your lifestyle, you can talk to your doctor to make sure that the diet or exercise is suitable for you and the cancer you have.

Looking after your bones

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

Eat well

Eat a balanced diet and make sure you get enough calcium. This will help you maintain strong and healthy bones.

A balanced diet should include:

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

Studies have shown that protein from fruit, vegetables and pulses (lentils and beans) is better for your bones than protein from meat.

Other studies have shown that including soy-based foods as part of a healthy diet can also improve your bone health.


A daily intake of 700mg of calcium is recommended for adults. Eat foods that are rich in calcium, such as:

  • dairy products 
  • leafy green vegetables, for example broccoli and curly kale
  • soya beans, kidney beans and baked beans
  • dried fruit, for example, figs, apricots and raisins
  • fish – you should have two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily fish like salmon or sardines tinned in oil.

If you have a dairy-free diet, make sure it includes other non-dairy foods that contain calcium.

Some food and drinks upset the calcium balance in the body. These include caffeine, red meat, salt and fizzy drinks that contain phosphates, such as cola. Avoid having large amounts of these.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, so it’s important to get enough of it. 

We mainly get it through sunlight, which the body converts into vitamin D. This is then stored in our fat. People with naturally dark skin need more sunlight to make vitamin D.

Most people get enough vitamin D for the whole year by being out in the sunshine without sunscreen for a few minutes regularly during the summer. How much sunshine you need depends on a number of factors, such as the time of day and your skin type and colour. You should always avoid getting burnt.

Although most of our Vitamin D comes from sunlight, eating foods that contain Vitamin D can also help. These include cooked salmon and mackerel, tuna tinned in oil, sun dried mushrooms and cod liver oil.

If you don’t go out enough, or if you need to cover up when in the sun, you may need to take vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D can be found in some fish oil supplements, including cod liver oil. But these supplements may interfere with the way some chemotherapy drugs work. If you’re having chemotherapy, ask your cancer doctor whether it’s alright for you to take these supplements at the same time.

If you’re having cancer treatments that increase your risk of osteoporosis, you may need to take vitamin D and calcium supplements. Ask your GP or hospital doctor if you need to take them.

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

Cut down on smoking and drinking alcohol

If you smoke, cut down or stop altogether. If you drink alcohol, stick to recommended guidelines.

NHS guidelines suggest that both men and women should:

  • not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week
  • spread the alcohol units they drink in a week over three or more days
  • try to have several alcohol-free days every week.

A unit of alcohol is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider, one small glass (125ml) of wine, or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.

There is more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk

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.

Get physically active

Physical activity makes bones stronger. Exercise can also improve your coordination and balance, which may make you less likely to fall and get a fracture.

How much exercise you do depends on your cancer, its treatment, how fit you are and what you want to achieve. There are lots of different ways to exercise. It’s best to find something that you enjoy so you’ll carry on with it and not get bored.

Exercise that makes you work against gravity (called weight-bearing exercise) is best for your bones. This includes walking, climbing stairs, dancing, hiking and gentle weight training. Swimming isn’t a weight-bearing exercise, but it’s a good way to get fit.

If you have a high risk of fractures or you’ve had a fracture in the past, you should avoid high-impact exercises like excessive running. This is because they can lead to stress fractures.

As a guide, regular exercise is usually defined as 30 minutes of activity five times a week. The 30 minutes could be made up of three 10-minute periods of activity. Don’t push yourself too hard. At the end of an activity, you should feel warm and slightly out of breath, but not exhausted. With practice, you’ll soon find you’re able to do more.

If you haven’t exercised much before, you’ll need to start slowly. Get advice from your GP. They can tell you if there are any exercises you should avoid and if there are any exercise schemes in your area. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Walking is good exercise. Start off with short walks at a comfortable pace, then slowly increase the speed and distance. Walking to the shops, taking children to the park and walking the dog all count. If you drive to work – park the car a short  distance from work and walk to the building.
  • Take stairs instead of lifts. Climbing stairs uses up twice as much energy as walking on flat surfaces.
  • Housework can be a form of exercise. Listening to fast-paced music while you clean and tidy can help you do it faster and use more energy.
  • Gardening is a good way to get active and enjoy the fresh air. If you don’t have a garden, you could volunteer to help at a community garden. Your local volunteer centre can provide details.
  • Bowling and dancing are ways to get fitter while socialising.

If you have osteoporosis or you’ve had a fracture in the past, avoid sudden movements or exercises where you bend forward and twist your waist. These movements can increase your risk of fractures in the spine.

Back to Bone health

Bone health

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