Because it rarely causes symptoms, hypertension is often called the silent killer. Although you may feel no pain or discomfort with high blood pressure, it increases your risk of heart attack, stroke and other health problems, including blindness and kidney failure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
As a personal trainer who walks my talk, I had no reason to suspect my blood pressure was anything other than textbook normal, as it had been my entire life. But something didn’t feel right. For several months, even while I sat quietly watching TV, I could feel my heart beating, as if it were working way too hard for no reason. I felt anxious and stressed-out. Something told me to dig out my home blood pressure monitor for a quick check. I grew more anxious when I read the readout: 145/100.
There must be some mistake. I rechecked my blood pressure several more times, but it was only higher, due to my rapidly increasing distress. By the time I saw a doctor, my blood pressure clocked in at 163/105. The doctor looked at me, amazed. “How could this be? You’re a personal trainer,” he said. Indeed. With both of my parents on blood pressure medication, it became obvious that heredity trumped my healthy habits.
As fitness professionals, we help others live healthier lives by our example, and it’s tempting to get caught up in believing that we’re somehow immune to the ailments that befall our clients. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Fitness people often feel their lifestyle is sufficient,” says John Corso, MD, author of Stupid Reasons People Die: An Ingenious Plot for Defusing Deadly Diseases. “When you look great and know how to eat right, there’s a tendency to believe you can’t have something like a stroke or a heart attack,” says Corso. “As a result, you might rationalize the problem rather than accept it.” He adds how fitness professionals might do something like drink more water or work out harder or longer, for example, to avoid taking medications and otherwise sidestep addressing the issue. Tactics like these can delay treatment and lead to more serious problems.
When was the last time you had your blood pressure checked? Your blood sugar checked? Had a bone density test or a mammogram? Do you know your family history? Regular health screening searches out and identifies health risks and allows us to eliminate them. “We’re looking for signs of trouble ahead, all easily disguised within even the most glowing, robust patients,” Corso says. “Just because you’re energetic and happy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to live longer.”
Hear how other fitness professionals found—and handled—health problems, and what tests you should get.
As fitness pros, we often take on everyone else’s problems and may neglect our own needs. Such was the case with Juan Carlos (“JC”) Santana, MEd, CSCS, director and chief executive officer of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Florida. “Everyone came to me with their problems,” he says. Santana, one of the most familiar and popular faces in the fitness circuit, says his frenetic schedule—on top of taking care of a wife and four children—began to negatively impact his health in a big way. He would skip workouts to help out friends and put everyone else’s needs ahead of his own. A visit to his doctor made him realize things had to change. “My doctor told me I was predisposed to diabetes and needed to lose weight, and if I didn’t get a grip on it now, it would wreak havoc on many other things,” he explains. “I want to be around for my children. It became a longevity issue.”
Santana quickly figured out a plan. “You have to set up your environment for success,” he says. “The people around you have to support you.” He met with his staff and with family members and told them of his decision to put his health first. “I told them they couldn’t run to me with their problems anymore. Now my exercise comes first, and then everything else.” Santana drastically cut his travel schedule, changed his diet and lost over 30 pounds as a result, which he documented in a series of DVDs, JC’s Midlife Transformation, available from his website, www.ihpfit.com. “It’s about quality of life,” he says.
While being fit won’t necessarily keep you from getting a medical problem, it may help you heal quicker if you do have one. Working as a personal trainer for many years, Judy Kwait, of Fairfield, Connecticut, knew full well the consequences of osteoporosis; she also knew her age and slight build put her at high risk for the disease. So, when a bone scan revealed osteoporosis, she took a proactive approach and began a prescription regimen to prevent further bone loss. “I never worried about it,” Kwait says. “I was on meds [Fosamax] and taking extra calcium. I was doing everything I was supposed to do.” But during a vigorous cardio interval circuit at a client’s house, Kwait’s foot caught in the carpeting and she lost her balance. She fell, landing hard on her hip, breaking it. “The pain was excruciating,” she says. Although doctors advised her that surgery might not work, as blood flow to the area was limited, the surgery was successful. Three years later, Kwait has no residual problems and did not require a hip replacement, the expected outcome. “The doctor credits my good health in helping me heal quicker.”
When was your last complete physical? If you’re like most adults, you stopped getting physicals after high school. Regular physical examinations should continue into adulthood, according to Vicki Rackner, MD, a board-certified surgeon, a clinical faculty member at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Mercer Island, and a patient advocate. “Everyone should have a customized health maintenance routine established with the help of [their own] primary care doctor,” she says. “Your doctor can tell you what specific tests you need based on your personal medical and family history.”
Some issues, such as hypertension, heart disease and a predisposition to diabetes, cannot always be eradicated with a healthy lifestyle and should be regularly screened, if you are at risk. “If you have a family history of heart disease, you have increased risk no matter what your weight and blood pressure,” says Dennis Goodman, MD, FACP, former chief cardiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. “This is why at-risk individuals should undergo early screening starting at age 18.”
It’s also important to find a doctor you trust who takes the time to listen to you, according to Rackner. “It’s in your best interest to go to your doctor and ask for a health strategy based on your personal history,” she says. “And listen to that voice inside you. If you’re not of an age where a mammogram is required, but something tells you otherwise, listen to that voice.”
Frequency and age to begin testing vary widely. Your personal medical and family health history may require you to have earlier and/or more frequent screening than someone with a different history. Take care of yourself first, and both you and your clients will reap the benefits.
Review the following resources to learn more about staying in good health.
- Corso, J. 2007. Stupid Reasons People Die. Bend, Oregon: High Lakes Press.
- www.aad.org, skin cancer information
- www.americanheart.org, cardiovascular disease information
- www.cancer.org, skin cancer information
- www.drmirkin.com, general health care and fitness information
- www.drvicki.org, suggestions from Vicki Rackner, MD, on ways to better work together with your physician
- www.medlineplus.gov, general health care and fitness information
Linda Melone has worked as a personal trainer for over 12 years and holds certifications with ACSM and ACE, along with a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition. She writes health, fitness and food articles for regional and national publications. Visit her website at www.lindamelone.com.