Osteoporosis might seem like the lesser of the evils when it comes to your health, but this isn’t usually the case. In fact, osteoporosis can lead to serious injury and even death because of complications from broken bones. Many men and women who suffer from osteoporosis avoid physical activity like the plague because they fear damaging their brittle bones, but some people, like Beverly Kimble, choose an active lifestyle despite their illness.
Every morning, Beverly Kimble wakes up to the sound of her radio alarm clock, gets dressed, eats a bagel or a bowl of cereal and heads out to the barn. Her six horses-each of them a prize-winning Thoroughbred from overseas-await her saddle and bridle from inside their 14X14 luxury stalls. This is a familiar routine for horseback riders worldwide as they prepare for competition, but Beverly Kimble is unique in the fact that showing her horses could very well land her in a wheel chair for the rest of her life.
“I found out I had osteoporosis when I was nineteen, which is incredibly young,” Kimble explains. “I broke my ankle in a fall and after my surgeon repaired the damage, he said that my bones were the softest he’d ever felt in his entire career.” She laughs: “I’ve always wanted to be the best at something, and now I am.”
Unfortunately, Kimble’s story is not unique. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, more than 10 million people in the United States are afflicted with this bone disease, with approximately 8 million sufferers being women. In most cases, osteoporosis strikes after age fifty, but in some rare instances, it can present itself during the teenage years.
When Kimble’s doctor first delivered her diagnosis, his recommendation was to stop riding horses altogether. Weight-bearing exercises (such as weight-lifting, jogging, hiking and stair-climbing) are considered beneficial for victims of osteoporosis, but horseback riding is generally considered too much of a risk.
“[My doctor] told me that the chances of breaking a bone were extremely high in the event of a fall, and I could wind up with permanent damage to my ankles or legs.” At the time, Kimble had been riding for more than thirteen years, and she wasn’t about to quit. “I was willing to take the meds and work on load-bearing exercises, but I couldn’t give up my dream just because I might break a bone.”
AN IMPORTANT DECISION
The major benefit of discovering that she had osteoporosis was the sudden realization that there were explanations for the aches and pains she experienced on a daily basis. It is often called the “Silent Disease” because symptoms are rare, but Kinble’s case was sufficiently advanced to cause pain in her back and joints. “They told me that I’d cracked three vertebrae in my back, and I didn’t even know it,” she says. “I’d been dealing with lower back pain for months and I always thought that riding was the cause.”
Despite her doctor’s recommendations, Kimble went back to horseback riding as soon as her ankle healed. She was twenty years old and involved with the Texas A&M riding team, which she says was a great experience because her fellow riders were all supportive. She did, however, begin taking medications immediately to help strengthen her bones, which included a daily dose of Actonel, a common risedronate drug for osteoporosis patients, as well as a regimen of hormone therapy.
“I knew how important it was to preserve my health,” Kimble says, “but when you’re in your early twenties and active on a regular basis, you feel almost invincible. I knew that I would have residual pain in my ankle and back forever, but quitting horseback riding would have sent me into a downward spiral of depression, which wouldn’t have been healthy, either.”
TEN YEARS – TEN INJURIES
In the ten years following Kimble’s diagnosis of osteoporosis, she broke a total of ten bones, including three ribs, one wrist, five vertebrae and a repeat fracture of her left ankle. It kept her front showing her horses as often as she would have liked, but she never stopped trying. In fact, she didn’t stop riding at all with the wrist and vertebrae fractures. Instead, she wore braces and took pain relievers to allow her the freedom to ride as often as possible.
Four different physicians advised Kimble to give up horseback riding. They said she could teach riding lessons or work with them on the ground, but they couldn’t stress enough that riding was indeed dangerous to her health. “They told me I’d regret it by the time I’m 40, and they’re probably right,” she laments. “But right now, I just don’t care.”
Horses require constant maintenance to be kept in prime condition for showing. They need optimum feed with plenty of proteins and carbohydrates; hay rich in fiber and nutrients; supplements to strengthen their hoof walls and ease the strain of exercise. Kimble is now discovering that osteoporosis sufferers require just as much maintenance to continue active lifestyles.
“I take Actonel in the mornings, and I have to stay upright for thirty minutes afterward without eating anything,” she says. “Both the Actonel and the estrogen have to be taken at the same time each day for maximum effectiveness.”
In addition to her medication, Kimble also engages in 45 minutes of weight-bearing exercises each day. “I get bored with one type of exercise, so I try to mix it up. Jogging on Monday, weight-lifting on Tuesday, running the stairs on Wednesday, and so on.” She tries to fit in those exercises around her daily rides, which include her six horses, plus a few she has in training at her farm.
Every six months, her doctor orders a bone mineral scan (BMS), which measures the densities of various bones in the body. It is the best way to keep abreast of her progress as she continues to battle against osteoporosis and to monitor the effectiveness of her medications.
“One of the routine questions the technicians always ask before I have the scan is, ‘How many bones have you broken since age 45?'” She laughs. “I always have to remind them that I’m 31, so the question doesn’t really apply.”
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Despite Kimble’s constant battle with osteoporosis, she has succeeded admirably in her sport. She is currently one of the select few who are in the running for the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, and she’s won hundreds of blue ribbons on her horses and those she trains.
“Everyone says that osteoporosis much be such a drag in my sport, but because I have to do the exercises in addition to riding, I’m in far better shape than I ever would have been otherwise,” she admits. And although her doctors all warned her against continuing her horseback riding career, her efforts to keep osteoporosis under control have resulted in a startling increase in her bone density since she was first diagnosed.
She currently resides in Aiken, S.C., where she trains her six show horses and works with countless others belonging to other equestrians in the area. Her own farm, which is called Blue Fox Equestrian Center, is a popular retreat for east coast riders who venture south during the winter show season.
Kimble is also an active member of the Bone Health Advocacy Network, which helps to raise awareness of osteoporosis and convince legislators to support bone density testing among target age groups.
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, Kimble suggests that you follow your doctor’s recommendations to the “T”. “I continued riding against medical advice, which isn’t something that I’d suggest to anyone else. You know your own threshold better than your doctor, so make decisions based on your own body, and not someone else’s.”
She also suggests that you inform your friends and family about this disorder and convince senior citizens to get tested as quickly as possible.