How I Overcame a Health Concern and Got Back to Fitness
I have always hated running… not just hated it, but absolutely despised it. This hatred increased when I was a teenager, when cardio and exercise became nearly impossible for me to do- but as I came to find, there was a reason it was so difficult for me.
I have been very active for most of my life, having grown up playing soccer, softball, and then basketball in high school. I even competed as a baton twirler for a few years, which required the same stamina and strength (and came with the same sorts of injuries) as more traditional sports. Long-distance running was inevitable with most of those sports, because the practices usually involved running laps. I hated it, because it didn’t seem to matter how active I was in my daily life- running was challenging for me.
Then suddenly in 9th grade, my intolerance toward exercise got worse during basketball season that year. I would get tired quickly and have difficulty breathing when I tried to run down the court during a game, and I would often get into coughing fits. I began to feel extremely fatigued and dizzy every day, and it was got worse following physical activity. After cardio, it was almost like my entire body would shut down for days, and when that occurred, doing any kind of moving was an extreme challenge. Although I never liked running, I was confused as to why, suddenly, things seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. During that time, I remember seeing active people jogging around town, with their headphones in, and think, "They are doing that by choice? There is no way I could ever do that!"
When I was in 10th grade, after visiting many doctors about the symptoms I was feeling- and even being told by one doctor that it was probably all in my mind- one cardiologist did a "tilt table test" on me and discovered I have a medical problem associated with low blood pressure and an elevated heart rate upon standing and while exercising, which in turn caused many of the other symptoms I was feeling while doing cardio. This affected me so much that during my remaining high school years, I stopped participating in sports. Every time I tried to work out, I felt as though I could not take air into my lungs, I would get lightheaded and dizzy, and my body would feel completely run down- almost like there were weights on my entire body, and this feeling would sometimes last for days. The symptoms were also brought on by being outside in very hot weather, from standing up after lying down for an extended period, and doing activities like riding roller coasters- because my body did not recover well from the rapid and frequent twists and turns. I tried going to more doctors for answers, but they didn’t seem to know how to help, except prescribe me medications that did not work for me. (If you are really interested, the full name of this disorder is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome… it is not life-threatening or really that dangerous in my case, just a pain to deal with!)
Because of this, I didn’t exercise that much for a few years, until college. By then, I had started gaining a little weight, and thought that maybe it was time to get back into exercising- or at least try. In doing research about POTS, I read about people with this disorder who said that participating in exercise, even though it was difficult at first, was the only thing that helped them to eventually feel better.
I started out by going to my college’s gym, walking on the treadmill a few times a week. It was a challenge, because even after just brisk walking for 30 minutes, I would feel those symptoms- I would get shortness of breath and feel extreme fatigue in my entire body, to the point where I found it difficult to get out of bed in the days following exercise. But I was determined to push through it, because I wanted to feel better and I wanted to become active again.
Then came what I consider to be the turning point. I read some articles about Pilates, and saw that for beginners, there were low-impact options that tone and strengthen the entire body. I thought it would be perfect for me because it didn’t involve cardio, and I thought it could help me get stronger. So I decided to try out some beginner Pilates DVDs, and I also purchased a balance ball that went with one of the DVDs.
I especially had difficulty with sit-ups or anything that involved raising myself from a lying position, but Pilates offered many alternative core exercises, especially with the balance ball, that didn’t involve a change in body position. Gradually I started to get stronger, and I just kept at it. It worked for me… the different stretches and core exercises actually made me feel good again, which is something I hadn’t felt after exercise in so long.
I then started progressing to other low-impact workout DVDs, and then eventually got into some cardio DVDs, starting slowly at first. I worked out strictly to DVDs for a year. In the process, I lost about 15 pounds, and then one day I realized… I was working out, and it felt GOOD! I no longer had any of those symptoms I used to have after exercise! Some days, the symptoms would come back… but they were far less frequent.
Five years after I started those Pilates DVDs, I feel better than I ever have in my entire life. I exercise without fatigue or dizziness, and I relish in something so simple as taking in a deep breath without difficulty. Today, I feel virtually none of those old symptoms, except sometimes in particularly hot weather. Occasionally I will have a bad day, but it is very rare. And- one of my favorite things about feeling better- I can ride roller coasters!
Since I started this, I have lost about 23 pounds, and I am now working out five to six days a week. I am even taking my kickboxing class every Wednesday (and sometimes both Wednesday and Saturday), and that’s something I never would have survived through six years ago. It is an INTENSE 60-minute cardio program, a real kickboxing class with instructors who teach you real punches and kicks in between burpees, kettlebell work, push-ups and two things I once found to be impossible- sit-ups and RUNNING!
Since things have been going so well, recently I decided it was time for a new goal- I needed to revisit running, my arch nemesis, outside of the running I do in my kickboxing class. Taking on a new challenge makes sense because it was a challenge for me to get started on this journey, but it’s made me stronger and I am better because of it. Also, it taught me that I am capable of much more than I may realize at the time. So a few weeks ago, I started running around my neighborhood (which, by the way, has many hills). The next few days I was sore but I thought… hey that was difficult, but not that bad!
I ran again a few days later, and have continued with the intense jogging and sprinting drills in kickboxing. Lately, I feel strong and almost light on my feet while running the drills. A few times, I have been able to achieve the best running time in the class! When I think back to just a few years ago- running and exercising accompanied by shortness of breath and the extreme fatigue that would last for days- I am so happy with where I am, it almost makes me want to cry. In fact, I am not even sore after kickboxing anymore… this is so incredible to me.
I’ve read that some people outgrow the symptoms of POTS by their mid-20s. I’m 26 now, so maybe I would have felt better by now, anyway. Who knows? If exercise didn’t entirely cure me, I believe that it at least helped to speed along the process… along with drinking plenty of water, making an effort to eat healthy, and trying to raise my blood pressure to a normal level by increasing my salt intake. It feels good knowing that I accomplished my weight-loss goals all on my own, and in the process learned firsthand that challenging myself and working toward something is the best way to improve and grow. I also now can appreciate that I have the ability to get up and exercise every day, because it’s not something to be taken for granted- I remember how sick I used to feel after exercise, and besides, so many people face worse hardships and injuries than me and wish they could be active. So I have no excuses for skipping a workout.
Recently I moved, so I no longer live in that neighborhood with the hills. However, about five minutes down the road from my new house is a park with a running trail, so I will be taking advantage of that. I’m going to be one of those people running around with my headphones in- the people I once saw around town and thought were crazy for choosing to run. I never thought that could be me…
I’m going to keep working on my running, and I will let you know how it’s going. I’m excited to see where this journey takes me next.
[The Before picture is me in May 2006. I had just finished my sophomore year in college, and this was about a year and a half before I started Pilates and exercising on a regular basis. The After picture was taken in May 2012, at a college reunion.]