By Maya Brown-Zimmerman
It’s resolution season, and everywhere I look it’s: “How to lose 10 lbs in 2 weeks!”, “Follow these 10 easy exercises for rock-hard abs!” “Start training for a 5K today: it’s easy!” The headlines offer simple solutions, but getting in shape when you have a chronic illness can be a little more complicated.
I have Marfan syndrome, and with that comes activity restrictions. I’m not supposed to get my heart rate over 120 bpm, play contact sports, or engage in any isometric activities (that’s where you’re holding your breath and straining, like in weight-lifting, push-ups, etc.). My doctors have told me a good rule of thumb is that if I can’t carry on a conversation while exercising, I’m doing it too hard. Well. That seems to rule out a whole lot of ways to exercise, doesn’t it? But, at the same time, people with Marfan and related connective tissue disorders are told that exercise and overall fitness is very important to keeping our hearts healthy and pain levels down. I’d imagine many of you have heard a similar edict, even though your diagnosis may be different from mine.
What I realized is that this forces me to rethink fitness. I acknowledge and accept that I am never going to have the tight abs or sculpted biceps I see on the models cluttering my Pinterest or Facebook feeds. However, I can adapt a definition of fitness to my own abilities.
For example, I can change the way I eat. Easy, simple meals and snacks don’t have to equal unhealthy foods. I can keep fruits and veggies handy, and I make good use of my crockpot. Toss some chicken and veggies in there and a few hours later, dinner is ready with no real work on my part! I also try to get moving. It’s easy to set up a little writing center for myself with everything I need within arms’ reach, but it’s better if I force myself to get up to get things, take the kids for a short walk, or park a few spaces farther than I would normally. Getting outdoors, even if it’s just to run some errands, brightens my mood and a better mood can decrease pain levels and encourage greater activity.
The important thing for me is not to compare myself with others and to be patient with myself. I set small goals to build up confidence and ability as well.
How do you approach fitness?
Maya Brown-Zimmerman, MPH, is a patient advocate and volunteer with the National Marfan Foundation as a member of the board of directors and coordinator of the teen program. She also chronicles the ups and downs of parenting two sons with special needs while having a chronic illness herself at Musings of a Marfan Mom and the Sensory Processing Disorders Blogger Network.