Why Dairy Nutrition is Critical for Mobility
Written by Marie Spano MS, RD CSSD CSCS, Sports Nutrition Coach and Expert
28 Mar 2022
We know that one of the key elements to quality of life as we age, is being able to maintain independence and mobility for as long as possible. To best support mobility throughout your life and improve outcomes as you age, including dairy in your diet is important from youth right through into your golden years.
Dairy foods can provide 13 essential nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin D and magnesium to help you build your body early on and help you maintain a strong, mobile body throughout life.
What is Mobility?
Mobility can be defined as the ability to move freely and easily and is an essential aspect of quality of life1, and a critical component of most activities of daily living.
Healthy tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones help us maintain balance, strength and flexibility – all of which are important for mobility. While you might think it should be obvious, nutrition sometimes flies under the radar as a core element of mobility, often over-shadowed by exercise. However, nutrition is also critical for mobility success long-term - alongside physical activity.
Why is Mobility Important?
Mobility is important for several reasons, ranging from quality of life and independence to reducing pressure on the social systems supporting an ageing population.
When we are young mobility enables us to enjoy activities and learn more about the world around us. For example, a person who is more mobile can take advantage of different opportunities including hiking, touring a new city, playing in the ocean and more. It provides the opportunity to engage in many different types of activities and be more social with others rather than sitting on the sidelines of life.
In addition to allowing us to maintain a full life in our youth, mobility is critical for healthy aging. An older adult who is more mobile is more likely to maintain their independence versus having to rely on others. Also, improved mobility in our senior years can help prevent some ailments and illnesses such as muscle atrophy and fractures as a result of falls.
The more we take care of our bodies from a young age the better outcomes we will see as we get older.
This is increasingly important as we see people today desire to retain independent lifestyles for much longer than previous generations. Seniors are increasingly delaying retirement, looking after grandchildren, and keeping up with activities and hobbies from their youth2.
How Do We Maximize and Maintain Mobility?4,5
Three of the major components to mobility success is bone, joint and muscle health.
During youth and adolescence, good nutrition and exercise is critical to build strong bones. Up to 90% of peak bone mass is obtained by 18 years old in girls and 20 years old in boys, peaking in our late 20’s3.
of peak bone mass is obtained by 18 years old in girls and 20 years old in boys, peaking in our late 20’s3
Therefore, once we reach adulthood, the skeleton can no longer get stronger. However, good nutrition and exercise plays a pivotal role in helping slow-down bone loss throughout life. Without adequate bone building nutrients, bone loss may occur at a faster rate.
However, first and foremost the best way to make bones stronger in later life is to build strong foundations and bone density in youth. Low bone mass and strength, more common in females than males, increases one’s risk of developing a stress fracture. Studies show a lower calcium intake, low serum vitamin D and a vegetarian diet can be linked to greater risk for developing a stress fracture4,5. However, there are several additional nutrients important for bone health such as protein, magnesium and vitamin K. Osteoporosis, a condition more common in the elderly, although it can occur at younger ages, is characterized by fragile, weak bones that are likely to break easily.
Choosing foods that are high in calcium, and ensuring the body has an adequate supply of vitamin D is critical to establish strong bones and maintain these strong bones throughout our middle age and senior years.
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In addition to good nutrition, exercise is critical for bone health. In particular, impact exercise such as jumping or punching a bag as well as resistance training are the best ways to help build bone. When we move past our bone building years and into middle age, continuing exercise is important to maintain strength and vitality.
Muscle is also built through a combination of exercise and good nutrition. While a good training program is paramount, good nutrition helps support training adaptations (helping provide the nutrition necessary to train hard) and provides the nutrients necessary to make muscles stronger. In addition to building peak muscle early on, it is essential to prevent muscle loss later in life.
The good news is, unlike bone tissue, muscle mass and strength can be built throughout our lifetime.
Sarcopenia, age-related muscle loss, can lead to a decline in functional living and increase one’s risk of developing osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Only two modifiable factors can attenuate the progression of sarcopenia: physical activity, particularly resistance training, and a higher protein diet. However, not all proteins are created equally. Research shows smaller servings of higher quality proteins, those which have a high bioavailability and contain all essential amino acids, are needed as compared to lower quality proteins.
Animal food sources of protein (such as dairy) tend to be of higher quality compared to plant sources (with soy being the exception).
Therefore, we can get by with smaller serving sizes of higher quality protein-rich foods and ingredients such as dairy foods, whey, milk proteins, eggs and soy compared to lower quality sources of protein such as beans and lentils.
A key takeaway from this section is that mobility is driven by a mixture of quality nutrition and consistent physical activity. For best outcomes I recommend engaging in these practices from a younger age throughout life into senior years as many mobility foundations are made in youth.
Including Dairy in Your Diet Can Support Mobility
As mentioned throughout this article, dairy foods have a multifaceted role in helping support and maintain mobility throughout a person’s life span. Dairy foods are an easy, accessible source of high-quality protein to build strength and help avoid sarcopenia. Dairy foods also provide calcium and other bone building nutrients. For instance, dairy milk provides 13 essential nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium-all important nutrients our bodies need to stay heathy and mobile throughout the lifespan.
In order to maintain quality of life throughout the lifespan and independence into older age, physical activity and nutrition are critical.
It’s important to think about sound nutrition from an early age to set the foundation for a lifetime.
Bone and muscle building nutrients help build this foundation and then prevent excess breakdown later in life. The younger we start proactive measures, the better off we are for preventing illness and ailments and maintaining a healthy mobile life. However, it is worth noting, it is never too late to make positive changes to our lifestyle and prioritise nutrition.
At any age the following steps can help you improve mobility outcomes;
- Include calcium in your diet to support bone density and strength
- Understand the levels of protein you need for your age, as you will need more the older you get to help maintain muscle strength and mass (Protein calculator here)
- Nutrition and exercise work together for best outcomes – so get moving to keep moving!
- Dairy is an easy and accessible way to incorporate 13 essential nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium and magnesium, into your daily diet.
-  Netuveli, G.; Wiggins, R. D.; Hildon, Z.; Montgomery, S. M.; Blane, D. Quality of life at older ages: evidence from the English longitudinal study of aging (wave 1). Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2006, 60, 357-363
-  Mintel - Mobility Benefit Platform Trends in North APAC Markets – 2021
-  National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/ - Vitamin C, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved 26th March 2019.
-  Schnackenburg KE, Macdonald HM, Ferber R, Wiley JP, Boyd SK. Bone quality and muscle strength in female athletes with lower limb stress fractures. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011;43(11):2110-9.
-  Wright AA, Taylor JB, Ford KR, Siska L, Smoliga JM. Risk factors associated with lower extremity stress fractures in runners: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2015;49(23):1517-23.
Nutrition Communication Expert
Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD is a nutrition communications expert and one of the countries leading sports nutritionists. Spano has appeared on NBC, ABC, Fox and CBS affiliates, and authored hundreds of magazine articles and trade publication articles, written book chapter and web copy on a variety of nutrition topics. She is lead author of the textbook Nutrition for Sport, Exercise and Health (Human Kinetics, 2017).
The views expressed above are the opinion of the author based on their experience, qualifications and research. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Fonterra, and Fonterra is not responsible for any decisions taken in reliance on the same.