Wellness Wednesday: We Are in Training for Life

Every day since I woke up an Amsterdam ICU in 2019, I’ve been in training, training for life. It’s no longer about one race. It’s about staying in this game of life, as well as I can, for as long as I can.

I used to train for running races

When I was in my 20s and living in New York City, I took up recreational running as it was just taking off. I put in the training miles on early-morning runs along the East River, and my husband joined me for weekend runs in Central Park. Soon, we were participating in races organized by the New York Road Runners under Fred Lebow, co-founder of the NYC Marathon. My husband and I both completed half-marathons, but my most notable running moment was shaking the hand of legendary Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz’ on a Manhattan sidewalk. Her gracious manner and winning ways made her the completely approachable queen of New York City.

Grete Waitz, 9-time winner of the NYC Marathon, crossing the finish line with NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1992. He was dying of cancer, and it took them more than 5 hours to complete the route.

I stopped running, stopped training

Plantar fasciitis put an end to running as my go-to activity fifteen years ago. Although I continued to exercise, mostly in the water, I stopped thinking of it as training. It was about looking better, or getting thinner, or feeling stronger. I took it for granted that I would simply keep going.

Illness stopped me in my tracks

All that changed on May 5, 2019, when I was stopped in my tracks in Amsterdam by a ruptured aneurysm. For six weeks, my body battled to survive. When I woke up, I was rail thin — okay, yes, my first thought was YIPEE! —and unable to move.

Muscle atrophy comes on fast when you are intubated, and if I hadn’t been strong to start with, it’s very likely I would not have made it.

Then, I was back in training

Everything — leaving the ICU, returning to the United States, living independently in our South Florida home, navigating the world again — everything depended on me recovering my ability to move.

Moving my tongue, my jaw, my neck to be able to chew and swallow, and strengthening my fingers to be able to feed myself. Getting my arms able to lift myself, my torso able to sit up, my hips able to roll me over. Standing up with help. Standing up alone. Walking with help. Striding alone.

I did it all. I got back to living my life.

Surprise return to running

In relearning how to stand and to walk, and through my daily 60-minute exercise routine of walking, stretching, swimming, biking and strength training — I’ve improved my body mechanics. As I recently wrote, I’ve built back better, with a mid-foot heel strike that is easier on the feet. As a result, I no longer have heel pain, and, a couple of times a week I’ve even been able to get back into jogging.

It might be an old-lady shuffle, but from where I was two years ago, this is running!

Physical activity as medicine

This week, I also came to understand physical activity as medicine, thanks to the legacy of my hero, Grete Waitz. I learned that she was just one year older than me, and that she died a decade ago of cancer, the same disease as took NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1994.

Grete continued running as she was treated for cancer, and her belief in the therapeutic value of physical activity led her to found AKTIV Against Cancer, a foundation whose mission it is to have physical activity become part of cancer treatment, just as exercise is prescribed for people with Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

We need to treat this as a medicine.

AKTIV Against Cancer funding recipient Lee Jones, Ph.D., Memorial Sloan Kettering

So get moving

None of us gets out of here alive, but let’s live well for as long as we can. We’re all in this training camp together.

Take a lap around the block, and call me in the morning.

A good doctor’s prescription.

Wellness Wednesday: How I Built Back Better

Regular readers will know that I am a huge advocate of water exercise. Last month, I wrote about what water exercise can do for you. In May, I wrote about how water fitness helped me survive a 2019 ruptured aneurysm and to recover and rehabilitate as I celebrated my second anniversary of that trauma. At the end of 2019, when I was strong enough to resume taking classes and before the pandemic had shut down LA Fitness, I wrote that water keeps saving my life.

Heel pain prevented me from jogging

One of the reasons that I became such an advocate of water exercise years ago was that I had developed plantar fasciitis, heel pain that did not permit me to continue to jog as my cardiovascular routine. Although I purchased orthodic inserts for my sneakers, iced my heels, and stretched as recommended by the physical therapists at FYZICAL, nothing really improved. Blame my high-arched dancer’s feet, too tender for the hard world of running.

Buoyancy allowed me to run in water, and resistance improved my overall strength. I even put my old orthotics in my water shoes, — mine are from Ryka.

I didn’t think I would ever jog again. It never occurred to me that I might have to re-learn how to walk, or that starting over would rehabilitate the old injury as I built back better.

I had to re-learn how to walk

July 2019

When I was released from the Amsterdam ICU after six weeks, most of it intubated and inert, I had lost 30 percent of my body weight and the ability to move. Returning home to the United States depended on my ability to walk. Weeks into recovery in the hospital’s 7A unit, I finally stood, but my legs felt as empty as cardboard tubes. Weeks of additional work with my awesome physiotherapists, and I flew home.

Better alignment

My dance background and my American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification helped me be aware of keeping my ears over my shoulders, my shoulders down and back, and my knees over my hips. As my body slowly came back into its own through physical therapy at FYZICAL, there were weeks when I felt like a Transformer every time I slowly stood up, my parts slowly clicking into place.

Better body mechanics

I used the audio workouts from WeightWatchers, aaptiv, to keep me focused and motivated on my outdoor walks. For the first time since my days as a barefoot modern dancer, I was super conscious of how I used my feet in propelling my weight forward. As much as I thought I knew about how to move, I picked up tips like landing mid-foot instead of on my heel. That single tip probably helped more than any other in keeping plantar fasciitis at bay.

Fall 2020

Better strengthening

I continued to do the exercises I had done at PT to strengthen my legs (particularly squats and monster walks), adding resistance bands when my old Lycra water bands gave out. Mine are Fitfort, no longer under that in Amazon, but they look very similar to these. My daughter’s hand weights came out of the closet, too.

Better stretching

The two things I missed most about moving my body while I was hospitalized were relaxation — when you’re lying in bed all day, you never get that “ahhh” release — and stretching. As I recovered strength and movement, I regained the need to relax and the ability to stretch. Water gave me back loads of stretching, and my weekly yoga class with Jade Wonzo has facilitated even more.

Et voilá! I’m jogging

Bit by bit, walking became trotting became jogging, without any heel pain, and now I’m jogging — not running every day but doing a steady 15-minute mile several times a week. I’m swimming or biking the other days. And doing weights and stretching too. Our rescue Lab and I walk every day.

Someone said, “Oh, you’re cross-training!” Guess so. A little bit of everything seems to be a good balance for now. As I continue to build back better.

September 8, 2021 running in my Ryka water shoes

Wellness Wednesday: How the Fitness Habit Helped One Journalist Recover from COVID

My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

I recognized the gratitude in these words. My exercise teaching experience gave me a whole lot of helping hands when I pulled myself up from post-Intensive Care syndrome following my lengthy hospitalization in 2019. Although my illness pre-dated COVID, I felt a sort of kinship with Jorge Milian’s experience. I wanted to find out more.

Here is what I learned in my research, including a telephone conversation with Jorge a few weeks ago.

Palm Beach Post reporter Jorge Milian

In his coverage of the COVID pandemic’s impact on his beat of Lake Worth Beach and Boynton Beach, Palm Beach Post reporter and journalist Jorge Milian has written tributes to fallen community leaders and other victims of the virus, stories on the verbal attacks on the city’s Central American migrants, and articles on the eviction moratorium. What he never expected to write was a story on his own hellish encounter with COVID-19 at the end of January.

Hellish month

I had a raging fever, my head felt like it was on the verge of exploding and each of the 206 bones in my body ached.

That began around 4-5 weeks of unpleasantness that, at its worst, had me wondering if I would wind up like some of the people I’ve written about since last March in the Palm Beach Post who died after getting COVID-19 (and if would I have time to alert the Post’s editors not to use the headshot that makes me look 20 pounds heavier in my obituary?)

I can joke about it now. But there’s nothing funny about running a high fever for days and feeling like you are trying to breathe under water while your doctor is wondering aloud whether you should check into a hospital – a thought that terrified me even more than the unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations that dogged me for around 10 unrelenting, miserable days and nights.

Walking from one side of the house to the other seemed like a marathon. The worst of it was at night when I would wake up gasping for air, almost as if I had forgotten to breathe.

Fatigue was another big issue. For around two weeks after getting sick, I would sleep for 10 hours then spend the rest of the day feeling like I needed a nap.

My doctor told me I should seriously consider going to the hospital if my oxygen level fell below 90. My oxygen level never dropped under 92, but still low enough for thoughts of ventilators and doctors in space suits to cram my thoughts.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

Exercise habit

In a recent conversation, Jorge told me that before being bedridden by COVID-19 for 15 days, he had not been sick in his 26 years with The Palm Beach Post. He is an active 61-year-old, a diligent gym-goer (“a little bit of a maniac”), and former runner. He credits his lifetime fitness habit with his quick comeback.

As sick as I got, I still feel kind of lucky. My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery. [Still], it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that I can go for my hour-long bike ride or complete my daily strengthtraining routine without stopping every 15 minutes to catch my breath.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

His body struggled though what had been comfortable workouts.

When I returned to the gym, it felt like a fever would suddenly rage through my body, heating up like crazy, although my temperature would be normal. But my muscle memory was there to see me though.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Fitness advice

Jorge is happy to be on the other side of his COVID-19 illness. He is not a long hauler, having been able to resume his full activity routine. And what does he recommend to help others build up their strength?

Find something you like to do and do it. Every day. Consistently. Work up to being active for an hour a day.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Staying well

Follow the public health recommendations: get vaccinated, wear a mask, and practice social distancing.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that contracting COVID-19 was no worse than catching the flu, but the virus put this 60-year-old through a physical and mental wringer like I haven’t experienced before.

What I had, you don’t want.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021
Reporter Jorge Milian, photo Thomas Cordy, The Palm Beach Post

Wellness Wednesday: What Water Exercise Can Do For You

Water saved my life

On Christmas Eve 2019, I wrote that water keeps saving my life. My work as an instructor of aquatic exercise had me fit enough to survive a ruptured arterial aneurysm and six weeks in an Amsterdam ICU in May of 2019, and I recovered the ability to move in water long before I could replicate those moves on land as my recovery continued back home in Florida.

Boynton Inlet, Palm Beach County, Florida

Today, I’ve tapped into two friends who are water fitness instructors — Janet Weisenford, who teaches at the Boca Raton YMCA, and Marlo Scott of First Class Fitness and Wellness — to help explore why water is such a great environment to exercise in, and what specific moves are the most useful.

Water gave a runner new legs

I discovered the wonderful magic of water fitness after being a distance runner for many years. I suffered from arthritis and needed to find another way to keep physically and mentally fit. At my massage therapist’s suggestion, I decided to check out aquatic exercise.

Janet Weisenford, Aquatics Exercise Association certified instructor at the Boca Raton YMCA

The water fitness class she took opened a new chapter for Janet Weisenford, a long-time teaching buddy. She discovered that she could get a great total body workout — cardio, strength training, and flexibility. Janet was so captivated that she became a certified instructor through the Aquatics Exercise Association, where she learned more about the water and its properties. Here is what Janet says about why water is such a great exercise medium:

  • Water’s buoyancy cushions our joints, allowing former runners like myself to run in the water with minimal impact.
  • The water also offers resistance, not only building muscle but also building or maintaining bone density.
  • Water workouts can also improve flexibility. The reduced effects of gravity allow you to move through a greater range of motion.

Flexibility, Janet says, is important for doing everyday activities, especially as we age, and it is often a component of fitness that is overlooked.

I can attest to that. There is nowhere better to stretch than in a pool, supported by the water.

Water exercises for core

As I learned during my recovery, core muscles bear the burden of holding us upright, ready for life. So focussing on these torso workhorses is an excellent idea. I asked Marlo Scott, with whom I’ve published posts on posture and on weight loss, for her favorite core exercises.

Core is a no-brainer: The plank, the push-up, and the bicycle.

Marlo Scott of First Class Fitness and Wellness

Notice how the old-fashioned sit-ups aren’t on Marlo’s list? The bicycle works not only the mid-section abdominals but also the obliques, back muscles, gluteus and hips while improving coordination, stability, and flexibility. The plank and push-ups add work for the chest, back, and arm muscles.

In the water, I love cross country skiing and then anything that involves a twist — even better, a twist with a noodle. I also think pull ups at the pool’s edge are fantastic. And front and rear leg kicks (as in doing the backstroke and the crawl) are great, too.

Marlo Scott of First Class Fitness and Wellness
Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez pool demonstration: jogging, plank, bicycle.

Try it for yourself

If you haven’t tried a class or a water workout at home, please do! I am sure that you will become a fan!

Janet Weisenford, Aquatics Exercise Association certified instructor at the Boca Raton YMCA
Marlo Scott jumping for joy in her new water exercise gear!

Wellness Wednesday: Exercise Doesn’t Guarantee Weight Loss, So Why Do It?

I’d like a good swim or long walk to earn me a Snicker’s bar, but that’s not how it works.

As a rule of thumb, weight loss is generally 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise.

Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic, cited on Oprah.com

So, why exercise if it’s not about weight loss?

I posed that question to my friend Marlo Scott, owner of First Class Fitness and Wellness and a former colleague when I taught exercise classes to active seniors in nearby Boynton Beach. Marlo, a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor, holds a Masters degree in Health Education and is on the faculty of Broward College.

Although exercise alone doesn’t guarantee weight loss, it does make us healthier by reducing blood pressure, the risk for diabetes, arthritis pain, and depression and anxiety.

Marlo Scott

Exercise reduces blood pressure

The Mayo Clinic explains the correlation: physical activity makes your heart stronger = pumping more blood with less effort = reducing the force on your arteries and lowering your blood pressure.

Exercise reduces risk for diabetes

The Joselin Diabetes Center says that exercise alters fat to release a protein into the blood system, helping to improve glucose tolerance.

Exercise reduces arthritic pain

The Aquatic Exercise Association has partnered with the Arthritis Foundation to develop pool-based classes that use water’s buoyancy, resistance, and pressure to facilitate movement and relieve arthritic pain. I was an AEA-certified instructor before my 2019 illness, and being in water gave me back my body after losing so much muscle mass in the ICU.

Exercise reduces depression and anxiety

The Mayo Clinic says that exercise releases feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals, and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being. Getting more social interaction lifts the spirit. And the positive feed-back loop about knowing you’re doing something good for yourself brings you back for more.

Above all, find something that you enjoy! Have fun while you move.

Marlo Scott, First Class Fitness and Wellness

You can find out more about Marlo Scott’s fitness and wellness work here.

Wellness Wednesday: Three Strategies Behind My Recovery

Dr. Lisa Sanders’ Diagnosis column in The New York Times Magazine tantalizes me like a true crime story, only with a happy ending. Sanders’ January 17, 2021 column was about a man who’d been diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disease revealed to be a treatable brain disorder. She closed her essay with this:

It was only later that he recognized how strange it was to get a death sentence and lived to tell the tale. ‘“It was,” he told me, “like I was hearing my own eulogy without dying.”

Lisa Sanders, The New York Times Magazine

As a survivor of a near-death illness, I recognize that feeling. Two years ago, I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm and weeks of system failures in an Amsterdam ICU, and when I emerged from the fog of illness, my body had lost the ability to move. That intubated and inert body in a hospital bed was me. Yet here I sit, on the eve of my second anniversary, stronger than ever and completely myself in body, mind, and spirit. How in the world did I do this?

Three things have carried me forward for these past two years: keeping focused, celebrating small goals, and repetition.

Keeping focused

Focus seemed to take care of itself, at least initially. When I was really sick, the world shrank to nothing..Taking the next breath was the only thing. As I got better, the perimeter slowly expanded to include my body, my bed, my room, the physiotherapy gym, the park across the street.

After three months, I flew home, knowing how far I’d come. A wise doctor in Amsterdam counseled me to not let myself be discouraged at this phase by others’ impressions of me, but to keep my focus on the next step in getting better. One foot in front of the other, literally. Head down. One step at a time.

Celebrating small goals

At first, my only goals were small ones, and they felt huge. It took me several days to relearn to chew and swallow food before I could be released from the ICU. I could barely make a fist, so holding my iPhone was a victory. It took me an hour, but I finally peeled a tangerine.

Bending a knee, rolling over, and finally standing. My physiotherapist Gemma held me like a junior-high date and I shifted my weight from foot to foot..I walked out of the hospital, onto the airplane, and into my house, and every day since then I’ve continued to seek and nail those small goals.

Repetition

Every day my feet hit the floor is an opportunity to get better, and the morning begins with exercise. At first, it was 10 minutes of shuffling.. It’s now an hour of striding and weight lifting. Every day.

Four times a day, I repeat the pelvic floor exercises I learned from my gynecology nurse practitioner. I use the breathing prompt on my Apple Watch to consciously breathe for those two-minute sets. Every day.

It’s gotten me a long way. And I still have a long way I want to go.

One day, you look up and realize how far you’ve come.

Director of Outpatient Rehabilitation, Our Dear Lady Guesthouse, OLVG Hospital, Amsterdam