When I launched Tangram Fitness only a few short months ago, I had a mission to build an empowering personal training and health coaching business that also raised awareness on important women’s issues – topics like mental health, eating disorders, self-esteem, body image, hygiene, and chronic illness. My reason behind creating a company like this was quite simple- I had turned my own life around through fitness and nutrition, and I know just how powerful a regular exercise routine can be, both anecdotally and scientifically. Exercise is my drug, the most powerful form of medicine I’ve found, and I wanted nothing more than to share it with others.
What I did not expect, however, was to have to face yet another serious challenge at a time when everything seemed to be coming together perfectly. I had a new business that I loved with some incredibly awesome clients, I was training to compete in a figure competition and feeling physically stronger than ever, and my life had been pretty excellent for quite a while. Everything was moving in the right direction…with one exception. The pelvic pain I’d first experienced five years ago (which was diagnosed as interstitial cystitis, or IC) had returned with a vengeance, despite following an IC-friendly diet and religiously caring for my physical health and stress levels. Each month, the pain became worse, and even as I gave my all to push through it at every workout and training session, I began struggling to accomplish simple daily tasks. I felt like I was sleepwalking with a sixty kilogram kettle bell attached to my pelvis, and I was urinating more than forty times per day, unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time at night.
Eventually, in September, I decided that it might be time to see a doctor. He referred me to a specialist, which led me to another specialist, who diagnosed me with endometriosis. Endometriosis is a common women’s health condition that occurs when the cells from the lining of the uterus grow on other organs of the body, like the bladder, kidneys and bowel. Approximately 7% of women will have endometriosis in their lifetime, with an average diagnosis at between 25-35 years old. While many don’t exhibit any symptoms, for others, the pain can be excruciating. The exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, although recent studies indicate that exposure to pesticides greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing it. Up to 50% of infertile women have endometriosis, and it often coexists with other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like lupus and interstitial cystitis. Aside from impacting tens of millions around the world, there are many well-known women who have endometriosis, (most notably, Padma Lakshmi, who founded the Endometriosis Foundation in the US) and yet, you hardly hear about this common disease, especially in Singapore. Unfortunately, lack of awareness has dire consequences. According to my specialist, many local women do not seek help until the endometriosis has reached a severe stage, which can be very difficult to treat.
This Wednesday, just a few hours after boot camp, I underwent laparoscopic and cystoscopy surgery- otherwise known as “keyhole surgery,” which removed nine areas of endometriosis on my organs. Reduction in pain is experienced by 80% of women who undergo this surgery, but there is a 30-40% chance that the endometriosis will return and surgery will be necessary again. For now, I am solely focused on healing quickly and being able to resume my active life again, but I have to admit, being sidelined like this is not my forte. I don’t “do sick” gracefully and one aspect of myself that I could stand to work on is patience, the ability to sit still and let life roll on as it is beyond the fifteen minutes I spend meditating in the morning.
As an athlete and fitness professional, accepting the trials of my body over the past five years has been difficult, but at the same time, it's also one of the factors that drove me to change my life and become an athlete in the first place. Because of the pain, I’ve missed more than a few of my workouts in the past four months, and for many other workouts, I was unable to give 100%. When I confided to a bodybuilder my concerns about surgery, I was told that I may not be able to compete after all because of the scars on stomach (total rubbish, by the way). More than a few people have said, “but you look fine!” Today, I’m finding it difficult to walk to the kitchen, which makes me wonder when I’ll actually be able to run again… two weeks, three weeks, a month?
Here’s the reality: the vast majority of us, at one time or another, will face a major health challenge that will either derail us from our goals or push us to emerge both stronger and wiser. You’re training for a marathon and you twist an ankle. You’re putting forth a serious effort to lose weight and you rupture a disc in your back. You’ve been preparing for a triathlon and you sustain a serious injury. These are all true stories from people I personally know, and they’ve all faced the same decision- keep moving forward, however slow, or stop. Unfortunately, many people do decide to give up, to use their illness or condition as an excuse to avoid anything that may be uncomfortable.
I’ve spent some time contemplating how I can still reach my big goals for 2014- building an impactful wellness business, changing people’s lives for the better, and competing successfully in figure- while healing fully. Here are my steps to stay on track, as I work toward moving off the bench:
1. Create a recovery plan of action. Don’t just wait around until you feel 100% again- if that’s your mindset, then you might be waiting forever! Type out a road map that will get you back to where you need to be. Schedule walks and mini-workouts, as well as appointments with physiotherapists, naturopaths, and massage therapists who will assist you on your path to wellness. Put all of your exercise sessions on your calendar, and keep a notebook on your progress. Take things slowly, and aim to increase your speed or intensity by no more than 5-10% each week.
2. Express your frustrations constructively. Bottling up any negative feelings you may be experiencing can hinder your recovery and put you in a sour mood. Talk things out with a trusted friend, keep a journal, draw cartoons or blog about your journey. If needed, don’t be afraid to chat with a therapist or psychologist. For those of you living with chronic conditions, it’s important to have a regular outlet to express what you’re going through. Painting and creative writing can also be beneficial.
3. Invite inspiration into your life. Identify people and sources of information that remind you of what you’re working on and why. I’ve been following IFBB Figure Pro Ava Cowan’s blog “The Journey Back to Strength," which documents her recovery from a serious injury as she works her way back to the stage. I also read Bodybuilding.com’s Transformation stories every single week for a feel good boost.
4. Recognize that there’s always another event down the road. So what if you miss the triathlon, marathon, or bodybuilding competition you were preparing for? Events are a dime a dozen now, and you can always register for one at a later date. On the plus side, it gives you more time to prepare! Don’t get so hung up on a deadline. If you want to get there, you’ll get there.
5. Take time to meditate. If your body is fighting an illness or injury, it’s more important than ever to reduce your stress levels and gain perspective. Mindfulness meditation can also assist with pain management, reducing chronic pain by up to 57% in clinical trials.
6. Buy yourself a motivational gift. Find a special treat that you’ll look forward to using when you’re back on your feet. A few days before my surgery, I went out and bought some fancy “Run NYC” kicks from New Balance. They’re waiting patiently for me.
7. Eat for your health. Now is definitely not the time to pig out on junk or rely on processed food. Indulge in lots of whole fruits and veggies, and read up on diets that may help you in your healing. I’ve been following the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (with a few exceptions- I still include lots of eggs in my diet and I avoid tomatoes and citrus). There are other types of elimination and immunity-building nutrition plans you may wish to try, depending on what you're dealing with.
8. Use this downtime to learn and grow. Make a list of books you want to read and topics you want to learn about, and then dig in! If you’ve ever wanted to build a website, get a certification, learn how to use Photoshop or Excel, or take an online course through a portal like Coursera, now is the time.
9. Practice self-love. Being sick or injured is not your fault; don’t take this stumbling block personally. Honor your needs with compassion, and listen to your body. Write a personal mantra or statement of healing, hang it up in your bedroom or bathroom, and recite it aloud as often as you can.
I’ll keep you posted with my learnings as I move forward, and explore writing more about fitness and nutrition for those of you who have chronic conditions or injuries. We all experience setbacks, but we should never let these barriers get in the way of living a full and fit life!
As always, leave your comments and questions below. I'd love to hear from you!