We’re told that aerobic exercise and strength training are essential to healthy and graceful aging. When you’re having an AFib episode, though, this advice seems impossible to follow. I’m here to tell you that the advice is valid and you should follow it while also being kind to yourself.
I love to hike, uphill. I mean, the best view is at the top of something, right?! For the 30+ years I was in AFib 24/7, that got harder and harder to do. But I’m a very stubborn person, and I kept at it. Granted, the “speed” at which I hiked uphill got slower and slower over the years, and the total feet of “up” I was able to conquer diminished, but I never stopped challenging my aerobic capacity.
Now, I make sure to get out walking or hiking every day for an hour or so. On the days I’m feeling heart strong, I pick a route that includes a good bit of elevation gain. On the days I’m having an episode or just don’t feel that perky, I go the distance on easier terrain. And I don’t beat myself up about it; it’s the step count that matters most. The elevation gain just makes me a little prouder.
I’ll be honest, I don’t love strength training, and it doesn’t love me. But I’ve found ways to continue doing that, too. I used to work with a personal trainer, and she had me do a lot of exercises that involved what I call “upsie-downsies,” getting your head below your heart (think burpees or downward dog). Talk about feeling dizzy for a long time after the exercise was over. Since COVID, I haven’t worked with the trainer, and I’ve avoided all upsie-downsie exercises. I’ve created a weight routine that is kind of fun, and I try to do it regularly. If I’m feeling heart strong, I do the exercises using kettlebells as weights. If not, I skip the weights but still try to do the full exercise set.
As I get older (wiser?) and have experienced ever more AFib episodes, I’m realizing that I need something special to motivate me to continue to challenge myself exercise-wise. Getting a puppy helped; his sad, pathetic eyes persuade me to put the walking shoes on twice a day. Listening to podcasts helps; it feels like a special treat to do something just for me while walking, and the listening distracts me from much of the discomfort. Recently, I’ve decided to hike the Via Alpina (a 1,500-mile cross-Alps trek) virtually; every mile I walk in my daily life “counts” toward the trek. In 2 months, I’ve completed 22 stages of the trek and crossed over 225 miles in three countries. I read the trail description online as I finish a stage, so I can pretend that I’m actually in Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, etc.
I have a harder time motivating myself to do the strength training regularly. But when I trip on a root while hiking and almost fall, it reminds me how important the strength and balance training really is, and that motivates me for a week or so. I’ve also added a lot of stretching into the weight exercise routine, and that makes me feel so good, I’m motivated to do it again a couple of days later. And the puppy likes to “help” me do my exercises, which makes me laugh. And who doesn’t love that?
So it’s getting to be New Year’s resolutions time. How are you going to incorporate aerobic exercise and strength training into your daily schedule? My advice? Don’t overcommit yourself. Just start one step at a time.
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