When it comes to health and wellness, we are the accumulation of our choices.
In the fall of 2006, this was my typical day:
5:30am: wake up, shower, walk Pierre, throw a TJ‘s salad into my bag, leave for work (a local high school)
7:30am: morning duty outside
8 - 9am: one (precious) hour to plan and grade
9-10am: 12th grade English class
10-11am: 9th grade English class
11-noon: 12th grade English class
noon-12:30pm: go to the bathroom (the only available time to go), lunch (but I was often too nervous to eat)
12:30-1:30pm 12th grade English
1:30-2:30pm: 9th grade English
2:30-3pm: afternoon duty outside or parent conference
3-3:30pm: in-service or department meeting
3:30pm: wolfed down my salad and stress-ate anything in sight (cookies, potato chips, brownies, etc.)
4-5pm: intense workout (usually burpees) to “punish myself” for stress-eating
5:30pm: walk Pierre
6pm: ate whatever was fast (crackers and cheese, frozen TV dinner, canned chili, PBJ, tuna out of a can, maybe some carrots)
6:30-11:30pm: graded, lesson planned, emailed parents
And I thought I was healthy because I exercised.
I feel certain this lifestyle led to my MS diagnosis. After just a few months of this crazy routine and unhealthy eating habits, I went blind in my right eye. After a month of doctors’ visits and an MRI, I finally heard the words, “You’ve got MS.”
You would think those words would be enough to snap me into reality, but it didn’t. I think I was in denial. I did nothing to change my routine, control the stress, eat healthier, or change my sleep habits. I continued with the 60-70 hour work weeks. I continued the stress-eating. I continued to have a very unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. I had no nutrition plan (I mean, I was eating canned foods on a daily basis!). I was tired all the time, and the MS fatigue was overwhelming. The only thing I changed was exercise -- I stopped exercising at the advice of my neurologist.
One year later, I went blind in my left eye.
Thankfully, in both cases, I regained my eyesight, but it was the second MS attack that opened my eyes to my new reality.
In hindsight, my diagnosis was the greatest of blessings. My heart hurts to think I put my body through that routine day after day, and I cringe to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t been forced to confront this unhealthy lifestyle I had created for myself.
Self-sacrifice for your profession can be a noble endeavor, but it came at a cost I was not willing to pay: my own health and wellbeing. After my second attack, I adjusted my focus. I was going to start living for me, not my career.
And honestly, I think this refocus is the reason why I’ve remained in the teaching profession for so long. The routine of my first two years would have led inevitably to burnout.
After my second attack, for the next 10 years, I researched, experimented, and read voraciously on the topics of MS, wellness, nutrition, health, and longevity. I changed my nutrition. I prioritized sleep. I did tai chi for stress-management. I called in sick if I needed sleep. I learned how to say "no." I also started exercising again.
These 4 lifestyle changes -- nutrition, sleep, stress-management, and exercise -- were the keys to feeling better and getting my life back on track. I also believe, with strong conviction, that this lifestyle change is the reason why I have not suffered an MS attack since losing my eyesight in the left eye, 15 years ago. (Knock on wood!)
All 4 pillars are important for living a healthy, balanced life whether someone has MS or not, but one pillar in particular is "the secret sauce" to fighting fatigue.
When I started exercising again, I started slowly and gradually progressed to endurance races and long cycling rides. I started lifting weights and doing more resistance exercises. I gained some serious muscle, and one day, I suddenly realized something: I hadn't experienced the debilitating MS-fatigue in months!
You see, for the first years of my diagnosis when I hardly exercised, I felt awful. I came home from work and took a 3-hour nap. My legs and arms felt weak and heavy. I almost fell asleep at the wheel driving home from work, and just the mere thought of exercise made me tired.
But once I started exercising again and building more muscle, I felt AMAZING: strong and full of life, joy, energy, and vitality. Building muscle is the "secret sauce" for feeling good. Here's why: When we build muscle, we increase our metabolism. When we increase our metabolism, we gain more energy on a daily basis -- we have more energy over the course of the day and we're able to perform everyday tasks more efficiently, sometimes even effortlessly. When we have a higher metabolism, our bodies burn more calories over the course of the day (muscle requires more calories simply to exist). This increase in daily energy seemed to counter the MS-fatigue I had experienced so often during those first years.
I still experience the fatigue sometimes (especially on very hot, humid days), but it's not near as debilitating or frequent as it once was.
But of course, you can't do exercise alone -- that was my tragic flaw. Learn from my mistake! All 4 pillars (nutrition, sleep, stress-management, and exercise) are necessary for fighting fatigue, achieving wellness, and living a long life full of health and vitality. This is my secret to wellness!
I became a personal trainer and wellness coach to share my journey and knowledge and help others become strong and healthy. My 8-week program, The Path to Vitality, centers on these 4 pillars. It's designed to help people feel good, fight fatigue, and achieve wellness so they can live their best lives.
Today the fitness industry and many personal trainers are focused on "losing weight" and "burning fat" and "looking good in that swimsuit." Appearance is not the most important thing, friends...feeling good is. Achieving wellness is. Learn from my mistake, friends. I thought I was invincible...I was not. I thought sleep was overrated...it's not. I thought I was healthy because I exercised...I was not. I thought nutrition only mattered if I stayed skinny...that's simply not true. We are the accumulation of our choices. Start making healthy choices today -- your future self will thank you for it.