This post will be more personal than I would like but it’s that important! Please, please read this if your thinking about getting started on a fitness routine, you won’t find this candour in a lot of places. The pervasive idea of get up, get moving and no pain no gain can be dangerous. So how do you get moving if it could be dangerous for you? This is not a post I would have written last year, even though I should have known then too. Since then I’ve had a lot of time to think about this and I have so I’m going to start with what got me thinking.
Last year I ran the 10k at the big race weekend in our city the Bluenose Marathon weekend. Well I sort of ran part of it the year before, barefoot in my maid of honour gown since the racers blocked my car in on the way to my sister’s ceremony but that’s another post… I signed up to do an intermediate, see above my level, training plan and run a sub-1 hour time. I didn’t, but I did get quite the case of runner’s knee. But we’re talking about more serious stuff than that here. And that’s all I thought could happen, train too hard, end up injured and frustrated while you sit out for June. At the Bluenose the kid’s run and 5k happen on Saturday afternoon and the more serious races start at the crack of dawn on Sunday, the 10k, the half and the full – streets clear by 2. My knee popped at yoga that week and I raced anyway in pain and pulled of a 1:02, meh.
But the next day on social media I saw one of my junior high classmates was posting about the 54 minute time running the marathon 5k. I thought wow that’s cute and REALLY slow. I ran into her in the local shop she works in a few weeks later and asked her if she was running again next year, I was. She seemed really upset all of a sudden and she said she didn’t know, maybe if she trained a lot more. I thought holy crap, how much do you really need to train for an hour long 5k at age 33? She had been about 75 lbs over weight but dropped about 25 of that from her short frame in the last few months and I’d heard she had been diagnosed with a somewhat serious (not sharing) medical condition recently. Even though it wasn’t at all related to weight of lifestyle I figured that was why she was taking better care of herself. It turns out she collapsed at the finish line, fainted and was helped into the medical station by paramedics. It turned out she was just dehydrated and had fainted and she was treated with orange juice and fluids and released. She put it down to the heat, I didn’t think 20C (about 70F) was all that warm.
But it got me thinking a lot, about how lucky I was, how serious it could have been for her and how my ideas about getting fit could be dangerous. I had chatted with her regularly and knew some details of her diagnosis (still not sharing) and I REALLY don’t think her weight or inactivity was a contributing factor to her diagnosis or that it was a complicating factor on race day. I really think that it was just too much too fast and if she was only my age, it could happen to a lot of people.
My Dad was diabetic, a long time heavy smoker, consistent drinker and 55 lbs overweight. This lead to heart disease and a fatal heart attack when he was 64 and I was 14. I got it from a young age that he was sick and it was only a matter of time, probably not much either. Whenever he would start walking or buy a treadmill I would wish so hard that it would stick. But shortly after he started his heart would act up, he’d get angina attacks, max out his nitroglycerine use and stop. I blamed him a lot for that until I thought more about this girl’s storey. I think though that living like this for my entire life as a child made me realize the importance of taking care of yourself and that is what has led me to being a semi serious exerciser for all of my life. One of my school mates gym teacher father died suddenly from a heart attack, this too lead her to take up running.
I realized too that I was lucky that I could just get up after spending a month on crutches and do my first triathlon, that I could run 10 k and train for a half marathon. It wasn’t an accident that I could do these things but I was still lucky to be able to get up and do what ever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was lucky that I had done those things and they inspired me to do more, rather than scared me away from continuing. Overall I’m lucky that I’ve decided to make the choices that I have and that I’m not afraid that the body I live in, the only one I will ever have, will betray me.
It also made me realize that the way I would council someone looking to get fit could be dangerous and dead wrong. I would have said just get out there get moving, its going to suck for a while but it gets better. I would have thought that this would be helpful. I would have said walk, run when you can and shared that I couldn’t run from lamp post to lamp post when I started and now I’ve worked my way up to a half marathon. I would have told someone running is a great, inexpensive and non-embarissing way to start, no one can see you. I would never have abdicated for the kind of things we see on weight loss programs on TV but I do think that these shows give us the idea we should jump right in with reckless abandon.
So how do you go about starting to get fit if your not. The answer is really, really slowly. No matter what the safest way to start is to see a doctor. But that also might not be wholly unnecessary or even enough of a step to take. If you are overall in good health, below age 50 and not terribly overweight you may be able to start slow on your own. There are a number of medical conditions that can make it more dangerous, anything that effects you heart or breathing like asthma, pulmonary disease, heart disease make sure you check with your doctor. If you have any issues with regulating your sugar levels like diabetes or hormonal issues that could be aggravated by exercise make sure you check with your doctor too. It never hurts to check in and you can establish a baseline blood test to really see the changes your making in your health as time goes on. No matter what condition you have it is almost a certain your doctor will be supportive of your efforts to take better care of yourself, but they will also caution you to take it slow. Its always best to double check if there are specific concerns you need to be aware of though. The brutal workouts we’re used to seeing on TV programs like the biggest looser can be legitimately dangerous for certain people. For example exsersize is one of the best ways to lower your dependance on insulin if your diabetic. Exercise is a great way to lower your blood sugar requireing less insulin, then you loose weight which becomes a positive spiral. But jumping into a hard workout could lower your sugar levels so low you go diabetic shock which can lead to seizures and a coma.
So how can you start and take it slow at the same time, the key is to make sure your safe. Well as safe as you can be, and really anything can happen to anyone, so don’t freak yourself out. One option is to workout at a gym and tell the employees about your condition and what to look out for. You should always make sure you have your phone with you, with lots of charge and cellular coverage. Even better take someone with you! If you don’t have a person in your life to take with you there are options. You could hire a personal trainer, join a club of like minded folks or start one if you have to. You could even place an ad on a classified site for a current walker to join you. Just because you can’t get up and run a 5k now doesn’t mean you won’t be finishing your first marathon next year! If you have to start really slow you can just walk around your house repeatedly until you know going around the block will be okay.
Bad things can happen and do happen to people all the time and there is no way to prevent anything entirely. Sudden death is a rare but established phenomenon in the marathon distance, one in 75 000 runners are struck with what is usually determined to be a previously undiagnosed underlying heart defect. And there is literally nothing you can do to prevent it, still well over half a million people finish marathons every year in the USA alone. If your health is not good and it could be benefited from getting serious about fitness should you do it? What if you’ve had a stoke, heart attack, are way overweight and diabetic or some other condition that makes this difficult and more dangerous than average at first should you start? Make sure you see a doctor to check it out. I can’t make that decision for you but ask yourself what happens if you don’t? How much time will you have left and what will that time be like?
I had the opportunity to have another discussion along the same lines with someone I love very much recently. This person was fairly active 5 years ago a bit before turning 60. A lot has changed in their life since then, lifestyles go down hill, more drinks, less activity, new people and I’ve honestly spent time worrying about this person quite a bit. What will the end of their life look like now and more recently the things they might miss. She was on track to live well into her 80’s even 90’s and now I’m not so sure… I don’t want to even dream up a number because it scares me. Through a series of texts missing context, she got the impression that I was suggesting she do an olympic triathlon training with me for the fall. But it was a good thing because I got to have a conversation with her, not so much about my specific concerns but about what she wanted the rest of her life might look and feel like. I also told her how amazing it felt to finish my first half marathon at 33, something I wasn’t capable of doing when I thought about it 10 years before. How amazing it felt to accomplish something like that and be in the best shape of my life. I realized this conversation would have been different between us a year or two ago.
To “I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t do a triathlon at my age.” I replied, “Well not right now you can’t, but you could. You wouldn’t even be the oldest person there.” She countered with, “I don’t have a lot of time left, it’s too late for me.” I asked back, “maybe, but how to you want to spend those years?”
Now I do see that a fitness routine routine can be a risk, hell it is for everyone! Literally 1000’s of runners are taken to emergency rooms unconscious each year, mostly hit by cars. I personally know previously healthy hockey players that have died on the ice. If you have a lot of weight to loose and a medical condition that well and truly does means that exercise can be dangerous for you, that means your life is already at risk. If you do nothing your life won’t change and it will catch you sooner rather than later. In 2014 StatsCan reports that 34% of adults age 18 and over are overweight and a further 20% are obese. Generally Canadian statistics in this area lag American but only by a point or two. Possibly if you are overweight and older, definitely if you are obese exercise does put you at higher risk for bad events due to exercise. If you are overweight and older, definitely if you are obese your lifespan is already shorter unless you change this now. Not only will exercise help, diet does more to make loose weight, it will start to reverse the damage you’ve done to your body, especially your circulatory system. You decide if it’s a risk worth taking. If you do decide to start, take every measure possible to minimize this risk, make sure people are there to help you should something happen, talk to your doctor and go as slow as you need to. If you do find yourself freaked out remember that every workout after the first one gets less risky along with life in general, as long as you stick with it!