"I Reversed My Osteopenia with Exercise!"

Sara Robbins's sedentary lifestyle packed on the pounds—until she learned it was causing her bones to thin. Now she's active, healthy, and 50 pounds lighter!

January 22, 2013
Sara Robbins - weight loss success
Mali Zima
Sara Robbins - weight loss success

Before: 185 (size 16 pants, 12 top)
After: 135
Pounds lost: 50
Height: 5'7"
Lightbulb moment: Learning my mom was concerned about my health
Biggest benefit: Reversing bone loss in my hip!  

Sara's Story
Right after I turned 50, I went to my doctor for my annual checkup. I was so close to menopause that he ordered a bone-density test to make sure my skeleton was OK. He told me that as my estrogen started to dwindle, I was at risk of losing bone and even of developing osteoporosis, a serious disease that can lead not only to thinner bones but also to fractures (Find out: Why should women worry about bone health?). I was shocked when I got the results: My right hip bone actually was thinning. My doctor said it was osteopenia, a condition that can eventually turn into osteoporosis. Bone health had never been on my radar, but I knew what had caused it. The unhealthy lifestyle I led in my 40s had done more than contribute to my having to shop for larger pants.  


Calcium-rich Foods to Build Strong Bones

I'd gained a few pounds over the years, but weight was never really an issue until, when I was 41, I moved from New York City to Atlanta. Walking around New York had made it easy to stay active, but Atlanta is a driver's city. Even though I lived downtown, there were very few stores or restaurants within walking distance. Plus, I had a 20-minute commute into suburbia for work. So I bought a car, and soon I was sitting on my butt to go just about everywhere.

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My hectic job--I'm a copartner at a recruiting firm--didn't help. I was working long hours, and at the end of the day I barely had enough energy to roll through the drive-thru for a quick dinner, let alone cook something healthy or hit the gym. (Video: Prepare Healthy Meals) Even worse: My office was a dieter's nightmare. It was normal to have lavish breakfast meetings, and if we were working late, we'd order in pizza or some other junk. (Satisfy cravings—smarter—with this free two-week plan: Eat This, Not That!) Weight creep is a terrible thing, and it happened a lot faster than I realized--I was gaining a few pounds each month, and my clothes just kept getting tighter. By the time I hit 50, I was wearing a size 16. I'd step on the scale and see 185 glaring up at me--the heaviest I'd ever been. Thankfully, about a year before I learned I had osteopenia, my mom gave me a kick in the butt that inspired me to take control of my health.

More: 12 Ways to Break-Proof Your Bones  

Letter from Mom
I've always had a great relationship with my mom, but she's known in our family for commenting on how much everyone should or shouldn't eat. It never really bothered me growing up because I'd always been thin. But as my pants got larger, her comments became a lot more personal and started to make me angry. I knew she meant well--she had been a fat kid, and she has exercised and watched what she eats to keep her weight down for as long as I can remember. But when she sent me a letter telling me how much she wanted me to get in shape, I was annoyed. I tossed it in the trash and tried to forget about it, but one sentence stuck in the back of my mind: I'm worried you're carrying too much weight on your heart. That was the first time she mentioned my health, and it scared me.

A few weeks later, I was checking e-mail when I looked up and saw my reflection in the living room mirror. The person staring back disgusted me. I looked huge--like a football player. At that moment I realized I was sick of being fat. That same day, I made my first appointment with a personal trainer. (Here’s what to expect when you hire a trainer.)  

Starting from Scratch 
The next day I went to the gym to meet with Dan McGrath, my new trainer. I told him I wanted to lose weight and be healthier. We quickly got to work. First, Dan had me do a few basic exercises to get a feel for my current fitness level, and he noticed that I was weaker on my right side. I couldn't believe how bad my balance was--I couldn't stand on one foot without holding on to something. Looking back, I realize the reason I had so much trouble was because my right hip bone was thinning. But at the time, I had no idea what was going on inside my body.

I began working out with Dan 3 days a week, starting with basic strength moves and a few balance exercises. He also told me to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes 5 times a week. At first I hated doing cardio—I was totally pooped after a half hour. I remember thinking that those women who are quoted in magazines saying how great exercise feels must be crazy or smoking something.

Dan also had me start making diet changes and asked me to log everything I ate in a food journal. Knowing I had to turn that in to Dan each week made it a lot harder to eat pizza or go overboard on sweets. (Try these 10 Drinks That Boost Immunity.)  

Over the next 4 months, I got stronger and stopped dreading my workouts. Soon I was walking on the treadmill or using the elliptical for up to 60 minutes at a time. I loved how positive I felt, and the weight was melting off. By the 7th month, I'd lost nearly 50 pounds. I'll never forget how awesome I felt when I stepped on the scale and Dan looked at me and said, "I told you you could do it!" I broke into tears in the middle of the gym.

A Skeletal Setback
While I was thrilled with my new slender self, I soon realized that I had a lot more work ahead of me. That same month I went to my doctor for my annual checkup, and he leveled with me: My right hip bone was thinning. He didn't say much, but he did tell me that I should continue following my new healthy lifestyle, as well as start taking calcium supplements.

I needed a better game plan, so I went home and researched osteopenia on the Internet. I learned that I might be able to reverse my bone thinning through exercise and a healthy diet, so I called Dan right away and said, "We need to work even harder."

Over the next year, exercise took on new meaning—it was no longer to lose weight, it was to improve my health. Dan added more weight to my strength-training routines to help me build up my bones, and I noticed that my balance and strength were slowly improving.

I've never liked taking any sort of pill, so I tried to get enough calcium through my diet to avoid taking a supplement. That meant I had to start paying attention to the quality of my food, not just the quantity. At first I knew very little about nutrition--when I was growing up, people just didn't talk about it the way they do now. It's embarrassing, but I didn't even know what a carb or a protein was—I had to Google everything! But the more involved I got, the more I wanted to learn. I started reading all kinds of health magazines, including Prevention.

Related: Best Foods for Bone Health

Big Rewards
In 2010, a year after my doctor informed me that my right hip bone was in bad shape, I went back to his office for another checkup and asked to take the bone-density exam again. When the results came back, I couldn't have been more proud. I had erased all signs of bone thinning!

I'm still working hard to keep my bones and the rest of my body healthy. I get an annual bone-density test to keep an eye on things, and I make sure to get enough calcium. I continue to work out 6 or 7 days a week. As my mom always says, there are some things that are in God's hands, and my health is one of them, but at least I know that I'm contributing in a positive way. What I know for sure is that I'll never go back to an unhealthy lifestyle—I like how I feel too much to ever live like that again!

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