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What’s better for bones: diet or exercise?

Scientists may have found some clues to help answer an age-old question:  What has a more positive impact on bones, diet or exercise?

Perhaps you’ve heard evidence for both these important habits. But a new University of Michigan (U-M) study got closer to a final answer.

To get this answer, researchers had to determine what effect diet alone, exercise alone, and then both diet and exercise together had on bone mineral content and density.

Researchers studied 16-week old mice and split them into various groups. Half got a control diet. The other half got an enriched diet with added calcium and phosphorus.

From there:

  • Some groups exercised for 8 weeks
  • Others didn’t at all
  • And still others exercised 30 minutes daily for 8 weeks, then stopped exercising for another 8 weeks.


In all, the researchers wanted to see whether diet or exercise made a greater difference in the mice’s bone density. And then, whether a combination of the two did even better. It’s important to know that at 16 weeks old, the mice were still expected to increase bone density regardless of treatment.

At the end of the study, here’s what the researchers found:

On average, the mice with the enriched diet saw greater increases in bone mineral density and strength compared to exercise mice alone. (In fact, mice who exercised only showed increases when they were on the enriched diet!) And the enriched diet mice saw greater increases versus the control diet mice too.

But the largest increases were in the group with the enriched diet who exercised for 8 weeks and then stopped exercising for the next 8!

Amazingly, the enriched-diet mice maintained their increases even through the 8 weeks of non-exercise. That means the enriched diet alone kept up the increases— no exercise needed!

These results even shocked the researchers. David Kohn, professor in the schools of dentistry and engineering at U-M, didn’t think diet alone would yield the results it did. Kohn believed a control diet with regular exercise would win out.

And sure, this was an animal study. But as Kohn himself said, “… if you think about the progression to humans, diet is easier for someone to carry on as they get older and stop exercising, rather than the continuation of exercise itself.”

Why You Shouldn’t Be Surprised…

Now, human studies have also proved that nutrition alone can improve bone health. In fact, nutrition alone increased bone density for 7 consecutive years, even in folks in their mid-80s!

Just like in the U-M mouse study, the participants in the 7-year human study used calcium and phosphorus to build their new bone too. But it took another 11 minerals and 3 vitamins to see consistent increases year over year.

Please note: All this isn’t to say you should stop exercising. Far from it. Exercise- particularly the weight-bearing kind- helps strengthen your bone and give you greater balance to reduce falls. And as you saw from the new study, the initial 8 weeks of exercise combined with a bone-building diet produced the best results.

By Dean Neuls

Dean Neuls is the Co-Founder and CEO of AlgaeCal. He is a natural health author and student of bone health science who is passionate about helping people & bettering lives.

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