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Why are our bones more fragile than our ancestors?

Credits : José A. Peñas/SINC - Licence CC 3.0

Today the human skeleton is a lot more fragile than that of our prehistoric ancestors.  This is largely due to a lack of external pressures.  Nowadays we are much more sedentary and can suffer from osteoporosis as well as other complaints due to an inactive lifestyle.  However there are many simple ways to improve our bone strength.   

More fragile bones

Our ancestors bones were a lot more solid than our own.  This is normal as our prehistoric ancestors were a lot more active.  They hunted and foraged for food and always need to be on the move.  Analysis has shown that the density of human bones slowly declined when humans started to become farmers.  New agricultural techniques revolutionised history.  However by living next to several food sources that were close at hand it also meant there was less pressure on our bodies.

During this period our ancestors still had a hard life. “The mechanical bone strength of the prehistoric women’s arms during the Neolithic period (about 6000 – 2200 BCE), the Bronze Age (about 2200 – 800 BCE) and the Iron Age (about 800 BC) and until the end of the first century of our era) seemed for example about 5 to 10% higher than that of modern female athletes,” states Charlotte Roberts, archaeologist at the University of Durham (United Kingdom). But the more time has passed, the less active we have become. Today, many live a completely sedentary lifestyle, and do very little exercise and are dependent on “everything at home”. According to WHO, 60 to 85% of the world’s population are not as active as they should be.

Of course or body evolves overtime. The loss of bone strength is one of the least known risks of a sedentary lifestyle.  However, osteoporosis which is when bones lose resistance due to a loss of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals affects around 1 out of 3 women and 1 out of 5 men in western society today. Now that our bones have become less “useful” they start to weaken and are subjected to more fractures.  Nevertheless there are certain means to prevent bone fragility.

Come back to basics

The idea involves doing as much physical activity as our hunter-gather ancestors so as to reinforce our bones.  You don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the gym in order to do this.  Karen Hind from Durham University gives us some helpful advice:

Some simple changes to our daily routine can be enough.  Ms Hind suggests that, “Using a rucksack when out for a walk can increase the amount of weight your spine has to support.  You should also “Do your shopping yourself as much as possible and carry bags of provisions so as to build up arm and back muscles as well as your leg muscles.”  Ms Hind also suggests that “If you have a dog, you should walk your dog more often and cover longer distances.”

The researcher also advises us to park further from work or the centre of town so that you are able to walk more regularly whenever we have the opportunity.  “You should also try and use the stairs rather than escalators or the lift  and try and take the stairs two by two.”   Regular gardening or simple housework chores can also be good at strengthening your bones.

However osteoporosis isn’t the only problem for people with sedentary lifestyles.  This type of lifestyle can also increase the risk of other fatal health problems. According to the WHO, an inactivity could double the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity as well as increase the risk of colon cancer, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. The main point is don’t sit around and do nothing get outside and move!


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