Abby’s Chance to Protect Her Bones

How an inexplicable spinal fracture led Zumba zealot Abby Ross to the osteoporosis diagnosis that saved her health and her mobility.

By Andrea Barbalich

This time I can’t ignore it, thought Abby Ross, 54, of Millbrook, NY, as she struggled to get out of her car in March 2013. She’d taught a dance class and two Zumba classes that week, and on the drive home after the last class, the pain in her lower back became unbearable. “I knew I had to get to my doctor.”

Her general practitioner immediately ordered an MRI—which revealed a fracture in Abby’s spine. “My doctor asked me if I’d experienced any type of trauma, such as a fall, but I hadn’t,” Abby recalls. “She told me the fracture occurred because of menopause [when levels of bone-protecting estrogen plummet] and overuse.”

Overuse would be a bit of an understatement. “I was doing too much,” Abby admits. “I was in my 50s, but I was teaching way too many Zumba classes and dancing like a 20-year-old.” She could keep up with the 20-year-olds too—but afterward she would feel the effects: “I would have to have an ice pack on my back, and driving was a huge problem for me. But I kept ignoring it because teaching classes was fun, and I got a lot of joy out of bringing joy to others.”

After the fracture diagnosis, however, she was forced to face reality. “My doctor said I had to slow down,” Abby  says. Her doctor also insisted she get a bone density test, which Abby underwent the next month.

“I was very scared about the test results because one of my mother’s friends has osteoporosis and was really crippled by it,” she says. “I also used to smoke, and I’m over 50. I was worried that my demographic is bad for that.”

As it turned out, the test was just what Abby needed. “The results showed that I had osteoporosis,” she says. “My doctor told me I was lucky I came in when I did. She said that I would be able to take care of it but would have to change what I’d been doing—and that if I didn’t, it would get worse.”

Since her diagnosis, Abby’s made strides toward protecting her bones—and her future. Here, she shares the tips that are keeping her strong:

Acknowledge, accept and moderate.
Abby’s first step was acknowledging that she couldn’t do everything she wanted to do. “It’s hard for me to be moderate about anything, including exercise. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person,” she says. “I love to sweat, and if I could Zumba all day long, I would. But just doing one type of exercise can be tough on your body.” On her doctor’s advice, she added other bone-friendly exercises like Pilates, yoga and a lot of walking. She works out on an elliptical machine but not at a steep incline. “Once I accepted my reality, things started to get so much better,” she says.

Help your body get calcium.
“I take vitamin D before each meal to help my body absorb the calcium in whatever I’m eating. I feel a difference. I also try to stay away from soda, plus I eat a lot of yogurt and a lot of vegetables like broccoli,” she says.

Place a premium on stretching.
“I stretch all the time—I stretch at the train station and while I’m waiting for the bus,” she says. “I have a Pilates ball and exercise bands to use around the house.”

Turn limitations into opportunities.
Abby has stopped teaching Zumba, which she thought would be a big loss in her life. Instead she’s excited to teach a new dance class. “It will be a classical dance class based on ballet and Pilates, with a lot of barre exercises and stretches. I’m going back to basics—teaching more about body alignment, how you stand and how you move. I’m not sure I would’ve done that without my diagnosis, but I like it much more.” 

These changes only underscore the positive feelings Abby has about her osteoporosis diagnosis. “It scared me, but now I’m psyched,” she says. “I feel strong and healthy and energetic, and I’m not sedentary whatsoever. I’m just more sensible and more moderate about it. I want to live a long time, and I have every intention of doing so!”

Swap—don’t stop—your exercises!
Having osteoporosis doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite fitness activities. But it may mean modifying them, like Abby did.

For example, high-impact exercises may be unsafe if you’ve broken a bone. So instead of running or jogging, try ballroom dancing or an elliptical machine. Swap tennis for a vigorous game of ping-pong.

Likewise, bending your spine can increase your risk of vertebral fractures. Play it safe by giving up abdominal crunches for core-strengthening planks.

And be sure to enlist a physical therapist or exercise instructor who has been trained to work with people who have osteoporosis. There are many moves that should be modified for you.

Published March 2014

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