Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2003 / 19 Adar I, 5763

BODYLESSONS: Calcium: more than just a bone builder?

Judi Sheppard Missett | New studies are revealing some unexpected benefits of calcium -- everything from weight loss to the prevention of heart disease and cancer. Here's the latest on an increasingly important nutrient.

While studying the effects of exercise on bone mineral density in young women, researchers at Purdue University discovered a connection between calcium and weight loss. A review of the daily diet and weight records of study participants indicated that those who consumed higher levels of calcium lost more body fat than participants whose calcium intake was deficient, and that this was regardless of their activity level.

Another study at the University of Tennessee appears to support the theory. Scientists there found that women who consumed the most calcium, about 1,300 milligrams per day, were much less likely to be obese.

A calcium deficiency triggers an increase in parathyroid hormone and active vitamin D. Experts hypothesize that the elevated levels of these substances leads to an accumulation of calcium in fat cells, which primes them to store fat rather than break it down. A diet high in calcium would appear to have the opposite effect. One catch, however: The benefits appear to come from dietary calcium -- in other words, calcium supplements are not as effective.

A study published in The American Journal of Medicine reported that women who took 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day had HDL levels four times higher than a corresponding placebo group. HDL is often referred to as the ``good cholesterol.'' Meanwhile, a Harvard University study found that individuals who consumed 1,250 milligrams of calcium a day for a period of 10 years had fewer incidences of certain types of colon cancer.

Of course, let's not overlook the bone-building benefits of calcium. Appropriate calcium intake is essential to increasing and maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis. You actually build bone until about age 30, after which you need to do everything you can to maintain it, especially if you have any of the following osteoporosis risk factors: a family history of osteoporosis; excessive caffeine consumption; amenorrhea (the cessation of menstrual periods); you smoke.

Unfortunately, most people don't get enough calcium. The average intake is only 625 milligrams per day. The recommended daily amount is 1,000 mg for people under age 50 and 1,200 mg for people age 50 and older. Calcium-rich foods include: yogurt, broccoli, bok choy, dried figs, kale, sardines, almonds, cheese and milk.

Dairy calcium packs a one-two punch, providing protein for muscle building, as well as calcium for strong bones. But individuals should be conscious of serving sizes and fat content.

For maximum health benefits, pair your calcium with regular exercise. Weight-bearing exercise also builds and maintains bone density, while aerobic workouts strengthen your heart and help prevent obesity, which has been associated with both heart disease and an increased risk of several cancers.

Push-ups are a great weight-bearing exercise because they strengthen so many muscle groups in the arms, torso and even the hips and legs.

If you're not ready for ``regular'' push-ups, try the following modified push-up to build strength and endurance without straining your back or shoulders.

On a mat or padded surface, kneel on all fours with your hands aligned under your shoulders and your knees aligned under your hips. Stretch your spine long from head to tail and press your shoulders down. Keeping your shoulders pressed down and your back straight, bend your elbows and tip forward on your knees as you lower your chest toward your hands. Try not to tuck your chin or look up as you do this. Press back up to the beginning position, and repeat as many times as you can without losing good form. Work up to 10-15 repetitions.

Judi Sheppard Missett is CEO of Jazzercise Inc., an international aerobic-dance instruction company. Comment by clicking here.


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