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Ageing well: how to keep joints, bones and muscles healthy

Musculoskeletal issues affect many of us as we get older. Find out what you can do to minimise the risks and stay healthy longer
Older adults exercising

With age, we can become more susceptible to injuries, aches and pains.

But there are things you can do to reduce the risks and to help maintain the health of your bones, muscles and joints. 

We've rounded up the best science-backed ways to live well for longer to help you maximise your later life health.

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1. Eat enough protein

As you age you lose muscle mass. However there are things you can do to minimise or lessen this effect, including making sure you get enough protein.

Healthy, older people aged 65 and over need 0.75-1.2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. 

For a 60kg adult this is 45-72g of protein. 

For context, a chicken breast has around 50g, a portion of salmon has 30g, a medium egg 7g and half a tin of baked beans has 10g.

Protein isn't only found in foods of animal origin - there are lots of vegan and vegetarian sources too, such as quinoa, beans, lentils, tofu and oats.

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2. Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D

We absorb less calcium as we age so it's important to make sure you have enough in your diet to keep your bones strong, particularly for older women.

Most adults need 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day, but post-menopausal women and adults with osteoporosis, Coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel disease need more - around 1000-1500mg a day.

Low calcium intakes over a long time can play a role in the development of osteoporosis - where bones become more fragile and more prone to fractures and breaks. Women are more at risk of osteoporosis as the menopause impacts calcium absorption, due to the reduction of oestrogen.

Calcium sources in food:

  • A glass of milk or fortified plant milk - 240mg
  • A matchbox size portion of cheese - 220mg
  • Small yoghurt pot - 200mg
  • Half a tin of sardines - 258mg
  • Two slices of bread - 54-100mg
  • An orange - 75mg
  • A portion of broccoli - 34mg
  • A portion of spring greens - 56mg
  • A 100g serving of tofu - 240mg

Vitamin D is also important as it helps you absorb calcium.

In the UK winter months we don't get enough vitamin D from sunshine (the best source) so it's recommended to take a supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D between October and March.

Outside of these months you don't need to take a supplement if you regularly go outside and expose your skin to the sun, but if you're housebound, tend to be covered up, or have darker skin then it's advisable to take a supplement all year round.  

Find out more about dosage guidance and where to get vitamin D cheapest in our full Vitamin D guide.

3. Stay active

Being active is really important for bone and muscle health. It's also important for your balance which declines with age and is increasingly considered a key marker of healthy ageing.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week - this is brisk walking, or anything that makes your heart beat faster and makes you warmer and slightly out of breath. 

Alongside this, for bone health, it's important to do weight-bearing exercise (where your legs support your weight) - ideally two days a week. Walking, dancing, tennis and weight-lifting all count. Jogging and running do too, but avoid over-doing these if you have joint issues.

Good all-rounders for your health include resistance training (for example using cheap and readily available resistance bands to do exercises at home), and racquet sports, such as tennis.

How different exercises help

Improved muscle functionImproved bone healthImproved balance
Resistance training (weights, bands or similar)✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔
Racquet sports✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔
Yoga, tai chi

✔ = low effect, ✔✔ = medium effect, ✔✔✔ = strong effect and ✖ = no effect. Source: Public Health England/Centre for Ageing Better

It's never too late to start. If you're new to exercise take a look at our advice on setting up a home gym.

​​​​4. Aim for a healthy weight

Carrying extra weight puts excess strain on your joints, while being underweight can increase your risk of osteoporosis.

If you're overweight, evidence shows losing just 10% of your bodyweight benefits joint health. 

It can be difficult to stick to a weight management plan, but quick fix diets are rarely the answer. Instead aim for small habit changes that are easier to sustain over time and with your lifestyle. 

See our insights into why fad diets don't work for more tips. 

5. Avoid having too much vitamin A

Most adults need around 600-700 micrograms of vitamin A a day.

Evidence shows that having too much over a prolonged period can affect your bones leaving them at higher risk of fractures in later life, but many multivitamin supplements or supplements such as cod liver oil contain vitamin A.

If you take these daily and also regularly eat liver or liver pate you could be taking too much. The NHS advises people not to take supplements containing vitamin A if they eat liver or liver products once a week.

We look at the evidence behind popular supplements to give you the lowdown on the supplements you do and don't need

Joint health myths you can ignore

Don’t fall for later life dietary fads. The belief that dairy causes inflammation and avoiding it helps arthritis is not backed by evidence. 

Neither is avoiding nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and potatoes) for the same reason. 

However, the fats in oily fish can have anti-inflammatory properties that could help with joint pain. Aim for one or two portions a week.