I still feel about 42, even though it’s been around a decade and a half since I was that age.
I’ve loved every year so far, but in my 40’s I felt like I’d grown into my skin, my brain and my sense of self. I’ve always remembered an essay by Carol Shields in her anthology Dropped Threads where she said every woman looks in the mirror and sees not the way she looks today but the way she feels inside.
I feel young at heart, strong of body and sound of mind. But apparently my bones are not so vibrant!
At 57, I work as a movement coach which means I have the luxury of a job where I move every day. I’ve always eaten well, been busy and active. And despite all that, about a year and a half ago I was diagnosed with pretty severe osteoporosis.
Damn! It really knocked me over for a while.
My husband and I are scuba divers and we own a 40’ sailboat. Our plan is to take the boat down south and sail to isolated locations and dive places that are as remote as possible. It’s a fantastic plan and my diagnosis made me afraid we wouldn’t be able to do it. Scuba gear is heavy, sailing involves a lot of pulling, reaching and odd positions. Could my bones withstand the pressures?
And then there’s my work.
I know a number of movement teachers who have had this experience: we tell our students that movement protects our bones, then we get this diagnosis and wow… it feels like we’ve betrayed our students, that we’ve been frauds. It’s tough.
But then, after you think it through for a while, you realize it might have been worse if you hadn’t been exercising, walking, running, hiking, climbing, swimming, lifting, doing Pilates or yoga and generally being as active as you have been.
So I got my head around it all and we had a summer on the boat. I was feeling more stable and positive, coming to terms with changing parts of my movement practice and adding more resistance work to my life.
Then last September I had a really nasty fall from an unstable branch I was playing on as part of my balance practice. The branch was on the floor and I’ve used it a hundred times, but on this particular day it flipped over as it often does. That’s part of my challenge. This time I didn’t recover my balance and I went down hard, right onto my lower back and hip, which are particularly vulnerable to fracture. I was alone and couldn’t get up. I had to call my husband and son to come and collect me from my studio. It took me several months to fully recover from the soft tissue damage but you know what didn’t happen? I didn’t break anything!
It was so fascinating to watch myself go through this process. I understand pain science. I’ve had back pain and back spasms before and they’ve never scared me. I have tools, I know how to help myself and I’ve always been confident I would recover.
But this time I had a really hard time separating myself from the fear that I had broken something.
It’s remarkable how having this kind of condition –– even with my professional knowledge –– could affect my mindset. So I knew I had to dig deep, confront that fear and connect to my sense of myself as strong and resilient. I had decided to shift my teaching to focus on osteoporosis (may as well use this diagnosis to make a difference in the world!) and this fall helped me to truly understand the fear and anxiety that some people are saddled with every day. Experiencing it myself made me more compassionate and drove me to find strategies, tools and resources to help myself and the rest of my osteoporosis community.
That work confirmed for me that I’m not prepared to sit quietly or to limit myself to official “exercise.” I have too many fun things to do in this life.
Last winter we continued to make some solid plans. I worked out specifically to train for diving and we went on a challenging and fun scuba diving trip. We lived aboard a 60’ sailboat with 18 other divers and crew and I dove two or three times a day and it was awesome. We were in the water with a 16’ hammerhead shark for probably 20 minutes on one dive, which is almost unheard of. Magical! We worked with the crew to help me get my weights and fins on board the boat before I climbed the ladder and then they would carefully guide me to my seat to avoid falling while wearing half my body weight in gear on a rolling boat at sea. They were amazing.
We continued to live aboard our sailboat for weeks at a time for the last two summers. I help put sails up at the beginning of the season and take them down in the fall. I maneuver the small spaces and odd levels. So many opportunities to hinge, sidestep, squat and lunge. We sail, we hike, we live our lives and my bones don’t stop me from loving the adventures!
Do I have to change some things? Yeah, for sure.
There are certain motions we want to limit when we have osteoporosis, particularly flexion (forward curving of the spine). For anyone not familiar with Pilates, it can have a lot of flexion and some of those moves were my absolute favorites! I miss them, but I also don’t have any spinal fractures, so that feels like a pretty good trade off.
Not to mention that moving in ways that avoid spinal flexion happen to be brilliant ways to build hip strength and mobility, so by sparing my spine I’m also building a pretty good butt, exercising as I live my daily life. Win/win if you ask me!
And movement and exercise are in fact the best things we can do for our bones!
Exercise isn’t a failsafe. It isn’t a guarantee of maintaining our bone density. Osteoporosis is way too complex for that, with lots of contributing factors, many of which we can’t control. But an exercise practice with osteoporosis in mind for sure helps to maintain the bone we have, helps to build strength and confidence, helps us to increase our balance so we can keep doing the things we love.
So here’s to taking life as it comes, adapting to the changes that come with age and figuring out the ways to thrive and keep finding adventure in every day!
For over 20 years Alison has been teaching movement and loving every minute of it. She has turned her osteoporosis diagnosis into a silver lining and uses it to inspire more learning and growth in her personal exploration of exercise. Check out her Facebook group Osteoporosis and Movement Solutions and/or her free resource Bone Basics: A 5-day Guide to Exercise with Osteoporosis.