I had never been sick, never had chicken pox, never broken a bone or needed stitches. I still had my tonsils. So when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 34, I was shocked.
It literally happened overnight. I went to sleep Thursday night feeling fine. By Friday morning, I couldn't move my legs. I brushed it off as being tired and called in sick to my executive assistant job.
Over the next couple of days, as I couldn't tie a shoelace or use my hands in any way, I knew something was up. My whole body felt like pins and needles.
I went to an ER and after 8 hours of being poked and prodded for tests, I was admitted to the hospital where I spent the next seven days with an IV of steroids.
The results of my spinal tap concluded I had MS.
Side effects, relapse and depression
Upon leaving the hospital, my neurologist put me on a medication called Avonex, which is meant to slow down the progression of MS. It was a weekly injection I gave to myself. The side effects were horrible — like having the worst flu combined with a hangover.
Because I worked full-time, I’d give myself the shot on a Friday night. I knew I’d be out of commission for the next two days from the side effects.
I was on Avonex for over a year, but was still having relapses (also called exacerbations) about three times a year and I needed steroids infusions to treat them. My flare-ups varied each time — numbness, blurry vision, sometimes my leg would give out. They usually occurred at the change of every season, in extreme heat, or whenever I caught a cold.
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Plus, I was still coping with daily fatigue, depression, and confusion. There were days when I couldn't even formulate a sentence. I didn't feel like me anymore. I would think, Well, this is what my life is like now.
Until May of 2009.
At the age of 37, after consulting with my doctor, I stopped the medication. My doctor suggested adding strength training to my workout. I bit the bullet to buy some sessions with a trainer, who was also a dietitian.
I always thought I was in pretty good shape and that I ate healthfully — until my first training session with Enrique. I come from an Italian family so food is everything. I’ve followed a Mediterranean-type diet my entire life. I took yoga and strength classes 3-4 times a week. But I didn't know what I was in for with Enrique and his rigorous workouts and strict diet plan.
The first few weeks of training were miserable. I couldn't breathe. I was so sore. I spent every Sunday filling Tupperware and Ziplock bags with food for the week. So much work!
I was on an "eat every 3 hours" diet with pre- and post-workout protein snacks. I’d never had a protein bar or protein shake before. I kept a food journal and Enrique would circle in red all the stuff I shouldn’t have eaten that particular day. There was a lot of red ink.
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The workouts were just as frustrating. I was terrified of every machine, convinced I’d fall off. I was in pain for days after workouts. I realized how out of shape I really was — that was more shocking than having MS!
But I learned something at each session. I started sleeping better and feeling stronger. I did everything Enrique told me to do, and I started seeing results in weight loss and in reduced MS flare-ups.
I was hooked.
Fitness changed my life
I traded "Happy Hours" for lower-body workouts. My life revolved around when I would next go to the gym. Enrique and I worked out together for the next five years. Guess what? I haven't had an exacerbation since — no steroids, no shots, no medication.
In fact, I was so motivated by what diet and exercise did for me, I became a group fitness instructor to spread the message.
I still have off days and get pins and needles, but the flare-ups are minor and don't last long.
Fitness changed my life. I found health, confidence, and turned my passion into my profession. Sometimes, I wonder what I’d be doing if I was never diagnosed with MS. Even though I have this incurable disease, I feel and look better now at 43 than I did at 23.
[Research shows that exercise is helpful in managing many MS symptoms, according the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Any fitness program may need to be adjusted as MS symptoms progress or change.]
I stuck with my routine, made small but consistent efforts each day and worked on being mentally strong and overcoming my fears.
The sacrifices were worth it. If I can do it, anyone can.
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Lori Conte is a group fitness manager and instructor at Crunch Fitness in New York