Our bodies are only as strong as our bones, and for many people in middle age and beyond, that's not saying much. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that half of adults in the United States over age 50 have low bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis.

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Finding safe and effective treatments for osteoporosis has been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance for researchers. For years, estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) was the golden girl of bone-saving drugs for postmenopausal women — until it was linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and heart problems. 

Then came bisphosphonates, a relatively new class of drug that prevents the loss of more bone cells than the body can replace. You may remember a few years ago that in commercials, actress Sally Field really, really liked the bisphosphonate Boniva. Other familiar bisphosphonates are Fosamax and Zometa.

Bisphosphonates significantly reduce fractures caused by osteoporosis, but the protection can come at a price. In a small number of patients these drugs have led to other kinds of bone fractures, as well as osteonecrosis of the jaw, a condition in which jawbone actually dies. A recent study in the journal “Bone” reported that prescriptions for oral bisphosphonates fell from 31 million a year in 2007 and 2008 to 14.7 million in 2012.

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If not pills, then what?

Doctors still prescribe hormone replacement therapy to treat symptoms of menopause and help prevent bone loss. Bisphosphonates are still given as well. But the best way to outsmart osteoporosis is to adopt bone-saving lifestyle habits when you’re young, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods rich in calcium (1,000 to 1,200 milligrams) and its bone-building partner, vitamin D (400 to 1000 IU). If your diet is naturally low in these nutrients — for instance, if your'e a vegan — you many want to consider supplements.
  • Do regular weight-bearing exercise, like walking or jogging; the impact on bone encourages it to grow denser and stronger.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Keep caffeine and soft drink consumption moderate. Caffeine and the combined caffeine and phosphorous in soda may contribute to bone loss.
  • Have no more than two or three alcoholic drinks per day.

Here are two more novel ways to boost bone health.

Get a jump on it 

In a recent Brigham Young University study of 60 pre-menopausal women between ages 25 and 50, those who jumped as high as they could 20 to 40 times a day significantly increased the bone density in their hips. Hip fractures are among the most common in people with osteoporosis and can lead to lifelong disability and even death.

For the study, one group of women did 10 jumps in the morning and 10 at night, while another group jumped 20 times in the morning and 20 times at night. Both groups paused for 30 seconds between each jump. The pause is key, explains lead researcher Larry Tucker, PhD. “Bone becomes desensitized pretty quickly to the impact, which is why traditional activities such as jogging and jumping rope don’t always increase bone mass,” he explains.

The women who jumped 40 times a day had increases in bone mass after only eight weeks. The 20-times-a-day jumpers caught up with them after 16 weeks.

It’s important to note that none of the subjects had reached menopause or had osteoporosis. Jumping isn’t recommended for anyone with the disease because of the high risk of bone fracture. However, says Tucker, post-menopausal women can try daily jumping as long as they know they don’t have osteoporosis. It may not be as effective — “One of the main risk factors for osteoporosis is menopause,” Tucker explains — but it can’t hurt.

Do the twist

Just 10 minutes of yoga a day can help keep bone loss at bay. In a small study of older people (average age, 68) who practiced 12 specific yoga poses a day for two years, some added as much as three-quarters of a point to their T score, a measurement of hip bone density. (Bone density is assessed with a low-intensity X-ray called DEXA.)

While it may not sound like much, some subjects who had already been diagnosed with osteoporosis were downgraded to a diagnosis of osteopenia (bone mass that's low but not low enough to qualify as osteoporosis), and some who had osteopenia were downgraded to normal, according to researcher Loren Fishman, MD, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the author of “Yoga for Osteoporosis.” Preliminary findings of a follow-up study of more than 800 subjects showed similar results.

Like the pounding of weight-bearing exercise, yoga poses stimulate bones to lay down more cells, increasing their density. In another small study, Fishman and researchers from New York University found that people who do yoga also may build “better quality” bones, with a structure that is more resistant to fracture.

Yoga provides an added benefit: It may help prevent falling. “Recent studies suggest that osteoporotic fractures are related more to falls than to bone density,” says Fishman. “Yoga can give you better range of motion, enhanced coordination and improved balance. No medication does any of those things.”

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Denise Foley is a veteran health writer and a former contributing executive editor at Prevention magazine.