When I’m running on Saturday, I won’t just be running for appearance’s sake — I’ll be running for what’s inside.
Specifically, my heart, lungs, muscles and mind.
Despite my documented hiccups, I plan to forge ahead and run the Hilton Head Island Half-Marathon on Saturday morning, and it’s a challenge that ties in directly with the American Heart Association’s Heart Month.
During months like October, our society places a ton of emphasis on wearing pink and donating to breast-cancer research organizations — but heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and people of all ages and backgrounds are susceptible, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why the message of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women initiative, celebrated Feb. 1, is so vital: “to raise awareness that cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death for women. But this program is not just for women. It really teaches women how to take care of themselves to prevent cardiovascular disease and how to build health for their families and their communities.”
Those sage words are from American Heart Association President Donna Arnett, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health.
I must admit that until I wrote this week about Joseph Martin and Button Gwinnett Elementary schools participating with Jump Rope for Heart, I wasn’t even aware of this month’s medical significance. But I’ve received the message through other channels that send it home: my own grandmother.
My Nene, as I call her, eats like a bird and frequents her local water aerobics, Pilates and step classes. Though she’s been trying to impart these habits on me all my life, a recent conversation with her finally led to a “Eureka!” moment.
“Oh yeah, we have a bad history of heart disease. That’s why I stick to my exercising like I do,” she told me, recounting that four of her father’s seven siblings either died from heart disease or strokes. Because her mother was adopted, that medical history is much more evasive — but we do know that my maternal great-grandmother died after complications from diabetes.
Hearing Nene’s revelations about my family was shocking. I knew we had breast cancer to contend with, but I’d never heard that the biggest risk may come from our level of activity.
And before I began my fitness journey in November 2011, even what I called exercise was a stretch. I used to jump on the elliptical trainer for about an hour and glide through an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” without breaking a sweat. No wonder I always became frustrated at my weight-loss attempts!
Truth is, even when I started training for fun and modifying my meal choices, I did not have my heart in mind. My motive was the desire to strut on the beaches of Tybee Island in a bikini and without shame and to receive the compliments that come with weight loss.
Each step that I ran in the beginning was a hard one, and I had to get used to a fair amount of discomfort to improve my cardiovascular capability. Even in the Pilates classes I recently picked up, I still sometimes think, “This is uncomfortable,” “I want to stop,” or “I wish I’d slept in instead.”
It’s helped me see that sometimes we have to make ourselves uncomfortable in the moment to ensure long-term benefits.
More than a year later, the compliments are great motivators, and I’m still not in bikini shape. But that’s also fallen from being my main objective into a bonus side-effect of a greater success.
Though my journey with exercise will never be over and I still would like to become leaner, there’s something incredibly triumphant about knowing I can run 13.1 miles, I no longer become winded when walking up stairs and that I now have ownership of my body, which is the only domain that’s ever mine alone.
And that knowledge has empowered me in other areas of my life. I hope it can for you as well.