Osteoporosis can strike at any age as Instagrammer Nathalie Lennon discovered when an extreme fitness regimen put her at risk of developing the bone disease.reports
PERSONAL trainer and social media star Nathalie Lennon, 24, is describing the thin line between passion and obsession. She knows exactly what she’s talking about because, two years ago, she stepped over it with a training schedule so gruelling it put her health at risk.
Her love of fitness turned into a kind of addiction that got her out of bed at 6am and kept her busy with a packed schedule of gym classes, bootcamp, and personal training in a day that left little time to recover or refuel.
But then Lennon was just doing what she thought all young, active fitness trainers should do. “I followed the path I thought a fitness-crazy girl should follow to build and showcase my motivation, my story, and to inspire,” she tells Feelgood.
She told that story in regular Instagram posts to her 56,000-plus followers and, for a while, life seemed great. Then, in 2016, she attended a bikini fitness event and something rankled within her. The ‘train-insane’ mantra just didn’t feel right any more and she began to question how fitness was pushed on social networks.
“I’ve personally experienced how the fitness industry on social media can become consuming, pressuring, and cause many young ladies my age to take drastic measures — restrict intake, cut out major food groups, overtrain, place your physical appearance before everything else.
“I made all these mistakes. I overtrained and overworked. I forgot to ensure I included all food groups in my diet. I forgot dairy was important. I forgot to think about my calcium intake.”
When she began losing a lot of weight in 2017, she went to see a dietician and was jolted into the realisation that her diet and lifestyle had put her at risk of early onset osteoporosis.
“I’ll never forget the look of shock in my dietician’s eyes that day,” she says.
Although she was still in her early 20s, she was sent to have her bone density measured. It was below average, a reading that meant she was at serious risk of permanently weakening her bones and developing osteoporosis. She was also told that she was not eating enough to fuel her lifestyle.
“I had an overwhelming sense of guilt that I had been spreading a social media message that unknowingly was more damaging to health than it was beneficial. If I had not visited a dietician, I never would have known the damage I was doing to my bones. In just a few years, I could have been diagnosed with osteoporosis.”
There was good news too. The personal fitness trainer was able to reverse the damage done by her punishing lifestyle. It’s possible to build up bone mass until the age of 30 and she introduced a range of bone-friendly nutrients, such as protein, calcium, and phosphorus to improve her musculoskeletal health.
She also made a much more radical change — she changed her lifestyle, cut down the hours in the gym, moved her fitness business online, and started to talk about the pressure put on young people – women in particular – to look a particular way.
Now, she is one of the ambassadors of Mind Your Bones, an awareness campaign run by the National Dairy Council, in association with Cappagh Hospital Foundation, to highlight the importance of bone health at all stages of life.
Osteoporosis, which makes bones brittle and weak, is the most common bone condition in Ireland, affecting an estimated 300,000 people over the age 50. However, it can affect people at any age. Lennon is keen to stress that point ahead of World Osteoporosis Day tomorrow.
“It’s important to realise that it’s not only the elderly population that need to look after their bone health. It is just as important for younger generations too, especially in an era where exercise, training, and long endurance events are becoming quite popular,” she says.
She hopes her story will alert others to the dangers of ignoring their health in the race for a six-pack.
“I have finally turned a corner and learned that true health starts within. I won’t be 24 for ever. I want to be healthy when I am 40, 60, and elderly too,” she says.
One of the best ways of cutting the risk of developing osteoporosis is to make sure that you are getting enough bone-building nutrients in your diet, says Dr Caoileann Murphy, a postdoctoral research dietician at University College Dublin.
She says children and young adults (from nine to 18) need five servings of dairy a day as it is crucial for bone-mass accrual which will lead to healthy bones for life. Adults should aim for three servings of dairy a day. A serving is a glass of milk, a pot of yoghurt, or a matchbox-sized portion of cheese.
Irish people get two-thirds of their calcium from dairy and studies show the calcium that comes from dairy is of greater benefit to the body than calcium from supplements, although it is not fully understood why.
Dr Murphy warns against the myths surrounding dairy. She says there is a misconception that it is fattening or causes acne, but neither are true.
“Cutting out any food group entirely is going to put you at risk of missing out on important nutrients. It’s not impossible to do so, for instance for vegans who avoid meat and dairy, but it requires a lot of knowledge and planning,” she says.
She advises following a healthy balanced diet that includes wholegrains and lots of fruit and vegetables. It’s also important to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D, which helps us to absorb calcium from our diet. The so-called sunshine vitamin is synthesised on the skin by sunlight, but only in the summer months. Vitamin D cannot be produced at Ireland’s latitude from September to March so it’s not surprising that an estimated one in eight Irish people is deficient in the vitamin.
Some foods are rich in vitamin D — egg yolks and oily fish — but Dr Murphy says it makes sense to take a supplement, although warns not to take a ‘more is better’ approach. The Food Safety Authority recommends 5mg daily for babies under one year old and 10mg for children and adults. Certain people may need more — if in doubt, discuss the dosage with a doctor or dietician.
While diet is crucial for good bone health, so is regular exercise as it helps young people, in particular, reach optimal bone mass, explains Dr Sinead Beirne, the resident doctor on TV3’s Ireland AM.
While some people who have a family history of osteoporosis won’t be able to avoid it, the vast majority of people can stave off what Dr Beirne calls the “silent disease” with the right diet and regular weight-bearing exercise.
She says most people don’t realise they have it as it can go unnoticed, without symptoms, until the person breaks a bone. But, she says, if you look after your bones in youth you will be grateful in your 70s and 80s.
Bone strength and the risk of fracture are determined by the density of our bones, she explains. Bone density can be measured by a DXA (dual-energy X-ray Absorptiometry ) scan, a quick, non-invasive test.
Dr Beirne says it’s important not to be locked into the idea that osteoporosis affects only certain groups of people — it can affect men and women at any age.
“There is no family that is not touched by some form of disease that affects the bones,” she says, adding that simple changes such as a balanced diet and 30 minutes’ exercise a day, five times a week, can help to prevent — or in some cases reverse — a disease that is debilitating in later life.
Olympian Sonia O’Sullivan has also spoken out about bone health and, in particular, the dangers faced by young athletes who over-train. She said it was time to start talking about the issue.
British European Junior champion Bobby Clay helped start that conversation when she told Athletics Weekly she had been diagnosed with osteoporosis at just 20.
However, athletes are not the only ones affected. Dr Beirne has seen young women put their bone health at risk from over-training. While it is rare that these women present at doctors’ surgeries — as there are often few symptoms — she says social media has upped the pressure to exercise in a particular way.
Some of the warning signs that your training schedule is too tough include missed or irregular periods; extreme or rapid weight loss; fear of missing a day’s training, despite illness or bad weather; fatigue or feeling cold all the time.
In a world where the focus has been on the dangers of obesity, it is easy to ignore the uncomfortable truth that there are also risks associated with ‘extreme health’.
As Nathalie Lennon says, it’s important to know where the red line is and not to let your passion tip over into obsession.