Mind Your Bones: How a young Irish Instagrammer is changing the way we think about bone health

Of the 75 million people diagnosed with osteoporosis every year, 80% are women. When fitness Instagrammer Nathalie Lennon was diagnosed at 23 with osteopenia – pre-osteoporosis – she decided it was time to take care of her bones.  Ahead of International Osteoporosis Awareness Day on 20th October, she’s urging all young women to do the same, writes Niamh O'Donoghue.


One of my best party tricks is obnoxiously popping every finger hinge and my wrists. It’s more of a crack than ‘pop’ really, and it garners a response of disgust every time. But lately, it’s made me think more consciously about my bones in general. (If you’re reading this and thinking “that girl will have arthritis in no time", that myth has been truly busted).

When was the last time you thought about your bone health? Our skeletons carry us around 24-hours a day, seven days a week. To work, to the gym, to the childminder, out dancing, climbing mountains. We can live without a kidney, thyroid or even a limb, but we can't ever live without our skeleton. And though we might not think about skeletal diseases such as osteoporosis day-to-day, knowing our bones begin to degenerate by 1% every year past the age of thirty is enough to give it some thought early on.

When you’re young and full of energy, it’s easy to forget that one day, the bones carrying you around will age too. At 24, personal trainer and fitness Instagrammer Nathalie Lennon (@Nat_tilly) should have been working towards her peak. Instead, continued diet-restriction and over-exercising drove her to exhaustion and wreaked havoc on her body from the inside out. Her story should come as a warning for young women to be mindful of bone health.

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“Passion is a positive obsession. Obsession is a negation passion.” . Struggles will be part of your journey. No one enters a lifestyle change, gaining continuous achievements, linear progress, “getting better each day”. We all face struggles. We learn from them. Sharing them with all of you? It’s hard, but worth it for the messages of hope it yields, the journeys that it can help to fix, even lives saved.. some messages I’ve got sent are just so touching ???? . I am extremely passionate about the idea of passion vs obsession after my journey. What differentiates a healthy and unhealthy obsession? You don’t see it happening, when the line is crossed. All of a sudden it happens. You crossed it. How? You told yourself it would never be you. And now, it is? This could be weight gain, weight loss, depression, anxiety, finances, relationship issues, family issues, career, anything. It can be a really dark place to come out of, BUT IT CAN BE DONE. It takes TALKING, and facing your “fears”, finding support, and genuine encouragement. ? . The more I see competitors, the more I can’t help but fear about how the severe lifestyle needed to get this way, impacts the mind?. Health should be about performance. I’m so happy I see that now. . Don’t be ashamed of your past, use it to build who you are. To build others. ???? If you are stuck in a dark place, a rut of any kind, don’t ignore the signs and know that you can fight whatever struggle it is you are facing. . As each day passes, and I grow further from that place, I feel such a need to fix all that’s wrong with social media and fitness, all that’s wrong with nutrition (antibiotics, pesticides, carcinogens), help you see all the positives and create a better way of living. I feel it’s given me so much experience, to share, and to help build a message of health. Of learning to develop “healthy obsessions”, to live life passionately. . I’ll try my damnedest anyway ??????? . Off to have a passionate moment with chocolate topped yogurt bowl when I get home ??????? . #ThrowbackThursday #GainHealth

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“I decided to do a physique competition in October 2016. It began as a box-ticking exercise for me, but turned into something far greater. I developed restrictive tendencies as a result of cutting body fat, which stayed with me long after the competition had ended,” Nathalie tells me while sipping a coffee, looking the picture of health.

“I didn’t realise how controlling I was being over everything at the time. Looking back, I think people around me could see it, but I was so consumed by it and loving it; seeing my body change, tracking my macros and micros. That’s when things started to go skew-ways, and I realised I was being far too controlling and obsessive over wanting to change my body again and again.”

Throughout her training journey, Nathalie amassed a following of more than 56,000 on Instagram and regularly posted body updates, workouts and food plans. Physically, she was what could be considered as the “ideal” body type: slim, toned, athletic. Inside, however, painted a very different picture. “That’s the problem with Instagram," she says. "People can look amazing but be at their lowest or sickest inside. I knew I wasn’t well, but in the photos I shared I just hid this by wearing bigger clothes or covering up more.”

“I wasn’t happy; I looked and felt gaunt. I was a personal trainer speaking about health and wellness on Instagram, and I am the opposite. That’s when I said it was time to make a change. I spoke to my family who were very supportive and happy that the penny had finally dropped.”

 

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POSTING THIS AND DIVING INTO A HOLE OKAY BYEEEE ?? NOTE ? I did not do this to fall in love with my body. I loved it before and I will love it all the more 10kg heavier. I did not do this to beat other girls and "bring a better package" than them, I done it to connect with and experience the journey with them. I did not do this because I felt I needed justification by judges to be told what was wrong or right with my body. I done it to prove to myself I could find the confidence to step on stage (and apparently impersonate a teapot HAHAHA???). I love training and that came easy enough, of course there are tough days, the prep was generally fine. ?? The hard part for me was honestly feeling too small sometimes, and the carb load the few days before! Although I came in apparently quite lean coach knows the carbs were needed ?? I'm SO excited to see how I can change and gain now after seeing that I could do this, and I don't know if I'll compete again. Providing it's always healthy, natural and I'm happy, maybe in a year I will. It was a good time for me to try this as there were no big events or outings happening in my life, I had the time (just about?) to focus on it ? But I will always put happiness first and would never put myself through a 16 week prep that would damage my mind and metabolism for years just for the sake of a trophy. I'm so happy I done this and I hope you all understand it ?? I can't thank my coach @gobeyonddave enough, and can't wait to keep working with him after this weekend ? . I have started a blog post on the whole experience but it's taking some time so keep you eyes peeled for that! ?? and now, it's the day before the competition I had planned all along (This was spur of the moment?) so I'm excited to pack, pamper and get down to the venue! It's on tomorrow night, SO MANY girls I CANNOT WAIT TO MEET! And I'll try snap all that I can ?? (nat_tilly) . OK DIVING UNDER MY DUVET ??? #TeapotArmGameStrong #FirstTimeBikini #Journey #Learning #Happiness #Bbg #Weights #IrishFitFam

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In need of physical and emotional support, Nathalie visited a dietician and had a Tanita scale test; a near-accurate reading of how dense your bones are. The test, as well as a considered examination of her diet, confirmed that she had developed Osteopenia, also known as early onset Osteoporosis (and it could have caused a bone-break during a routine workout).

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. As a result, bones become weak and may break from a fall or, in serious cases, from sneezing or minor bumps. It affects approximately 200 million women worldwide, 22 million of which are in Europe (compared to 5.5 million men). And every three seconds, someone breaks a bone as a result of an Osteo-related break.

Signs and symptoms

According to the Mind Your Bones Campaign, an initiative set up by the Cappagh Hospital Foundation and supported by The National Dairy Council, a calcium-rich diet is the easiest way to protect bones from degeneration. At the time of diagnosis, Nathalie had cut dairy out of her diet completely.

“It never occurred to me that I could be damaging my skeleton,” she says. “In fact, I never thought about it because I was too focused on my reflection. I didn’t intentionally cut dairy out of my diet at the time but I was following a strict food plan that didn’t include dairy. I should have noticed these things and known to include dairy.”

The majority of women experience symptoms much later in life when the disease has already rooted itself deep in their bones. For Nathalie, however, her body gave her small signs that threw her off-kilter; she described her symptoms as a dull ache she’d never felt before around her ankles, knees, elbows and shoulders.

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The dietician attributed it to not eating enough food and not getting enough calcium. I now try to get three-of-five of the recommended servings of dairy every day. “I can 110% say that if I didn’t see a dietician and hear “your bone density has fallen,” I never would have thought about dairy or calcium or bone health. At all.”

It’s recommended that adults get between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day and between 1,200 and 1,500 milligrams per day for teenagers.  

Instagram guilt

Nathalie spends a considerable amount of time filming and editing workout videos, preparing healthy meals and updating her followers with progression pictures; all while maintaining a 9-5 job as a personal trainer. You can really see the effort she puts into her work and herself with a quick scroll on her feed. But following her diagnosis, she tells me how she was overcome with guilt for telling her 50K+ followers potentially damaging information.

It spurred a public apology to her followers (and to her own body), and a commitment to be better equipped with the right information. She has since enrolled in a three-year degree in nutritional therapy at the Irish Institute of Health and Nutrition in Bray.

 

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Dont go through life... Grow through life ? (??) . Timehop has reminded me that this time last year I started a "6 week mini cut" to drop some excess fat after a 4 month bulking period, because I was getting a little uncomfortable. Learn from my mistakes ladies (and lads), and know that it takes FAR longer than 4 months to gain some muscle and really, mini cuts are not of great use unless you have gained a large amount of excess fat, have an upcoming event, or have the mindset for it. Also minimal body fat, is NOT a fun place. At the end of this time (left) I got a little lost, over worked, over teaching/over training, and under-fuelling despite eating what I thought was enough (approx 2300), anxiety developed, I felt pressured by SOCIAL MEDIA, to work my absolute ass off day in, day out, take on every client, teach every class, track every macro, and never say no. To be overly busy, try take over the world pretty much, and in the process forgot to look after myself! Fast forward to now, no sign of my new ways changing any time soon. ???? . I’ve used this platform throughout every step I took and it’s crazy to look back through it all, and share every step I learn with you. ? . I am my heaviest weight since this left photo as of this morning. My little gain plateau has officially been broke?AND IT FEELS GOOD! However a shopping trip is needed ??? . This week I managed to stick lots of extra untracked food into my gob, squat a personal best, benched a personal best, develop a new workout programme (EEEEP), get new PT clients started on their journey, and make time for myself tooooooo. Its been a good week. ? . Everyones starting their #SummerShred programmes but I'm just continuing my, what I like to call, #BodyBoost programme ? (Hence my bootcamp name!) Boost your health, your strength, your fitness, and find what is maintainable for you.? . A little Sunday reflecting as I brace myself for a 4am alarm.. 4AM... Clients dedication reaching an all time high! ???? Dont worry I will be napping by midday. ? Hope you all had a fab weekend. Here’s to a week of playful productivity.. ?? #Gain #GirlGains #Progress

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Q: What can you do to ensure your bones see you into your old age? ? Did anybody else grow up singing that theme tune, “Them bones them bones need… CALCIUM”? ? #MindYourBones #sp However, I forgot it somewhere along the way. Our nutrient needs & caloric requirements vary as we grow, change along with our training goals, or perhaps if we get a certain diagnoses. It’s really not that complicated to look after our bones, through a little diet awareness & caution: . . - Calcium & Phosphorus: Yogurt, milk and cheese are some of the best sources of dietary calcium & phosphorous, as are dark leafy greens, nuts, soft bony fish & fortified cereals.? . - Vitamin D is needed to help absorb these ?? Not so plentiful in Ireland so you may need to supplement it or look to include liver, oily fish & fortified foods in your diet, I use Super Milk & supplement with this. Ask your pharmacist or dietitian for advice.? . - Vitamin C contributes to normal collagen formation for the normal function of bones. Have plenty of fresh fruit & veg. The fresher the better, the longer veg/fruit lay there after getting picked, the levels of vitamin C deplete in them!? . - Zinc is also an important nutrient to include daily – found in cheeses, shellfish, some meats, nuts & beans. . Did you know that around 90% of bone mass is laid down before the age of 17? ?How many teenagers really meet all these dietary needs? In Ireland, 42% of teenage girls and 23% of teenage boys have insufficient calcium intakes. ? . If you are looking to lose weight, or think you have an intolerance – don’t cut out food groups without the correct diagnosis or knowledge ???? – it could be detrimental in the long term. Mind your bones. ? #MindYourBonesCampaign #TheCompleteNatural #CappaghHospitalFoundation #BoneHealth

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“My heart dropped when I was told about my bone health, and I instantly felt a wall of guilt because I was trying to promote a healthy lifestyle; in reality, I was doing the opposite. I felt afraid, too, because fitness is my job and I could easily break a bone and not be able to work,” she says.

For Nathalie, Instagram has become a place of support and championing, where before it was a melting-pot of ill-information and bad dieting. This year, she joined the Mind Your Bones Campaign to help women and men start their fitness journey the right way. Nathalie’s before and after images speak for themselves and raise questions about how healthy these competitions are for long-term health.

“When I started out I was definitely more easily influenced by what I saw online. Everything was based on looking amazing, not feeling amazing. I’m trying to change that by sharing my story and being part of the Mind Your Bones campaign. I think the fitness industry right now – by the fault of social media – is sending people down the wrong path. Ultimately, it’s important to realise that it’s not only the elderly that need to look after their bone health, but it is just as important for younger generations too”.

We leave our conversation there and Nathalie – a strong-willed and strong-minded woman – heads for a dance class. This time, for the pure joy of it.

Ahead of World Osteoporosis Day tomorrow, Saturday, October 20th, here are four ways women can prevent early on-set Osteoporosis:

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  • Weight-bearing, resistance-style exercises are particularly important for bone and muscle health, especially in your twenties. Up to 90% of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and age 20 in boys, which makes this the best time to “invest” in your bone health. If you missed out in your twenties, thirties or forties, there's no time like the present to start building your strength. Estrogen, which helps balance bone mineral buildup and breakdown, decreases as women enter menopause, so there's another valid reason to start pumping.
  • Do things you enjoy. Stress and depression affect your overall health which, in turn, impacts negatively on bone health. Don't feel guilty for taking some extra 'you' time.
  • Like calcium, protein and vitamin D are also important and contribute to the maintenance of normal bones and growth of muscle. Adopting a balanced nutritional diet and healthy lifestyle habits in your young(er) life is important to help prevent osteoporosis and fractures later in life.

For more information on osteoporosis and bone health, visit irishosteoporosis.ie and mindyourbones.ie.

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