In the years before my thyroid diagnosis, I worked out like crazy at the gym, but with little to no results. It was frustrating and I couldn’t understand why. It got to the point where I started to feel as if I was doomed to be fat, as my body spitefully ballooned from a US Size 6 (German Size 36) by a size every year and it became increasingly hard to find anything to fit, particularly in a country where a US Size 12 (German Size 42) was considered fat. So when I reached a US Size 14 (German Size 44), that was the last straw that made me finally drag myself to the doctor’s office, faced with the trepidation that I might just be dealing with a lifelong thyroid condition. You see, shortly before then, my mother’s doctor had finally bothered to inform her that the hypothyroidism diagnosis that was “gifted” her often runs in families. Had I known before, I might have been able to save myself the massive struggle of regaining my fitness, but all of this was a valuable lesson to me that made me reevaluate my attitude towards my body and my health.
When I was little, I used to flick through my teen mags and read about the celebs and their personal trainers, wishing that I could one day have one of my own. It seemed a concept that was so glamorous and unattainable and so I never really entertained it again until I became sick enough to realize that I truly needed help to regain my health. Disillusioned with those wasted years of working out at the gym and enjoying not a single pound of weight loss or toning, I realized that gym workouts alone were not the answer and it was by chance that during a visit to our chiropractor I spotted a flyer about the personal trainers who work in his office.
And so it was that shortly after my thyroid diagnosis I began working out with Daniela (Dani) Scheer and Corey began working out with her partner Thomas (Tom) Karrer. I don’t think we realized at the time how lucky we were to have found them because they truly understood and cared about what was going on with our bodies and they always encouraged us and never patronized us – what’s more working out became fun rather than a chore! And even more important: thanks to their encouragement and effective workouts, we achieved a significant improvement in our fitness level and strength, as well as our self-confidence. Moreover, I realized that I no longer cared about working out to lose weight or look good (although naturally everyone wants to look good), but rather because working out can help you to balance your hormones and give you the muscles and strength you so often lack when battling with a diagnosis of hypothyroidism. Furthermore, working out can help to avert diseases such as diabetes and other complications. Working out also gives you a sense of wellbeing and balance beyond that which you can experience physically.
Whilst I realize that not everybody can afford a personal trainer, this article is meant to be about what exercise and sport can do for your body – in whatever form you decide to implement it. Since moving to the US last December, we’ve hired and fired two personal trainers and that is also something I wish to address – what I have learned from this is that if you are going to hire a trainer it is vitally important to find one who shows you respect rather than discouraging and patronizing you. Yes, believe it or not, in a profession where people are supposed to build others up, there are those who are self-obsessed and more intent on making others feel bad about themselves. I don’t want to go into details here, but the lesson here is: find a trainer who suits you and, moreover, find one who understands either what it is like to have a chronic illness or at least one who can empathize with you when you are feeling weak or unable to work out because in my experience many trainers are scarily ignorant and unempathic. Find one who listens to your concerns rather than talking about themselves the entire time or tutting under their breath when you don’t understand their unclear instructions. Yes, both Corey and I have experienced all this and more, which is what made me think how wonderful it would be to have a trainer who (just like our nutritionist) is himself/herself chronically ill and understands precisely what we’re going through without me having to clumsily and awkwardly try to explain it to him or her (because – as I am increasingly finding out – not everyone is capable of empathy). And it is this very thought that led me to interview Marisol Aponte, a personal trainer with hypothyroidism.
Sarah: Tell me a little about your journey with thyroid disease. At what point did you decide to become a personal trainer?
Marisol: I’m an anomaly and not just because I’m lucky, but because I’ve been able to systematically figure out and eliminate the triggers of my illness. I was about seven when I was diagnosed, and my mom was diagnosed after giving birth to me, about a year or two before my own diagnosis. It turns out she had gestational hypothyroidism, which predisposed me to it. My mom started on treatment from an endocrinologist. However, it took a few years to figure out what was going on with me. I wasn’t growing as fast, was tired all the time, wouldn’t go out to play and wouldn’t eat. Through being vocal about my condition, I’ve met others in my situation. People seem to get hypothyroidism when undergoing hormonal changes.
The 10 years I spent working in construction were a whole different world to health and wellness, but they served me well for my future profession. My undergrad was in Civil Engineering and the school I went to focused on teaching their students to be problem-solvers rather than scientists. We were taught to take things apart, put things together, look at the source, approach things from a problem-solving standpoint. After the bottom fell out of the construction industry, the economy took a hit and I was laid off. I was fortunate to be able to take the better part of a year off. I took a sports medicine personal trainer certification qualification because I was involved in roller derby and doing more sports. If you’re hypothyroid, you’re at a disadvantage because your metabolism isn’t fully functioning, but I don’t have a margin for error with my diet if I want to play at a higher level and have sufficient energy.
Sarah: Is there anything that you personally struggle with when it comes to your job?
Marisol: After I got my personal training certification, I also got a holistic health coach certification, and I’m now focusing on this a little more than one-on-one training. Whilst I have struggled, I try and look at things from a positive standpoint and shield myself from negative people. I want to do everything at once and I have to make a list and check off each point – write a blog, cook, participate in social media, do one-on-one coaching, do group programs – there’s so much stuff that I can’t even think about all of that at the same time. It’s rather overwhelming.
As a result, I’ve decided to focus on one thing at a time and my business partner and I are getting ready to open up a nutrition club in Las Vegas in the next few months. This is my way of concentrating my efforts and giving myself a solid foundation/resource to branch out and do my own thing. The club will be open to everyone and it’s not just thyroid-specific. We are working with several other people and everyone will have their own niche. My niche is thyroid; and the other people in the club will focus on moms, runners, etc. There are a lot of wellness centers out there that are more like treatment centers. Our nutrition club is trying to preempt this because if you are putting healthy wholefoods and food-based supplements into your system, you might not need treatment as your body will hopefully heal itself. I applied to get my PhD in Naturopathy when I got laid off, but didn’t pursue this further because I decided I wanted to be active in prevention rather than treatment, regardless of how holistic the treatment because it’s still trying to fix the problem rather than stop the cause.
Medicine in general is very good at getting into how your body reacts and how to control hormones. It’s a low-level balancing act with medications, treatments, surgeries, but they haven’t gotten to a point where they can take a bird’s eye view look at the whole picture. Western medicine is so segmented. A few weeks’ ago my mum had pneumonia (which she’s had three times in the last 18 months) because she has a lot of mucus in her system. She’s been seeing a pulmonologist (specialist for diseases of the respiratory tract) for a while and the mucus is building up and draining into her lungs due to a broken nose. I didn’t realize she was seeing a pulmonologist. The pulmonologist can do whatever he likes, but you need to do something to stop the mucus going into your lungs. I suggested an ENT doctor. It’s still the respiratory system, but they’ve segmented your body into little tiny pieces, although it works as a whole system. This is the big flaw of Western medicine. I don’t know if it’s arrogance or just everything’s moving so fast that nobody has time to stop and take a look at the big picture. We have chiropractors, herbalists, acupuncturists, but there’s rarely someone who can do it all and patients are being passed from one person to the next like a baton.
Another thing I struggle with is maintaining enough muscle mass due to my low appetite. Sometimes I’m not very hungry and I have to be more conscious about how much protein/calories I’m eating because I might have a training session one day and end up burning a lot of calories. I don’t know if this is true of all people with thyroid disorders, but the first thing I lose is muscle (not necessarily fat). So I end up supplementing with Herbalife supplements, which are sport-specific nutritional supplements, as well as targeted nutrition supplements and most of the time protein too.
Sarah: Do you feel that that the fact you are chronically ill makes you a better trainer/holistic health therapist? How do you react differently to your clients than conventional trainers/holistic health therapists? Do you have a higher percentage of chronically ill clients as a result?
Marisol: Most people don’t know that I’m chronically ill. They know I have hypothyroidism, but they don’t realize how bad it can get. It’s been 10 years since I’ve had an ultrasound. I have almost no thyroid gland left, so I essentially have no thyroid function. What might distinguish me (hopefully not outwardly, but in my head) is that I have very little patience for excuses and I find that the clients that can’t make that mental commitment end up dropping out. This is because I’ve had to fight so much myself to get well. I try very hard not to be rude, make people feel uncomfortable or belittle their issues in any way, but I feel that not tolerating excuses definitely influences the type of people I work with.
Since I have a long history of being ill and experience with a number of different illnesses due to close friends and family, including Graves’, IBS, Crohn’s and fibromyalgia, it’s easier for me to identify things that are genuine issues rather than excuses. Not remembering to take your supplements three times a day isn’t because you’re not dedicated, but when you are really ill you sometimes have really bad brain fog (in the past, I’ve gotten into the shower with my glasses on or put my cell phone in the fridge!). A conventional trainer, on the other hand, might think this is due to lack of motivation or effort. But then there are those who say that they just can’t this week regardless of what day, how many reps, etc. That’s an excuse. You have to start off with baby steps, but I know you can do it. If I’m telling you that this is the way I solved my problem and you also have a similar problem and are completely unwilling to try, are stubborn, afraid, lazy … that’s a mental or emotional issue. On the other hand, if you’re telling me that you’re trying to do it, it’s not working, or you’re forgetting, I know you’re telling me the truth. It’s all about whether people try to make the effort. If I take my medication late, it catches up with me very quickly, I stumble around, put soap on my toothbrush and do crazy and embarrassing stuff. I’m a smart, intelligent person – why am I doing this?
There’s a couple of reasons why I haven’t been broadcasting my illness more. One quote I remember hearing a few years ago was “If you act like a victim, you’ll be treated as one”. I don’t want to bring attention to myself. I have a good network of people, so I find that if someone does have an issue they find their way to me. The other reason I haven’t been broadcasting it as much is that in my experience the majority of people with thyroid issues can treat their illness by changing their lifestyle in terms of eating healthier foods (less starches, more vegetables) and working out more. These people are subsequently able to lower their meds or get off them completely. I’ve had a lot of experience with people who’ve done this and my passion tends to lie in helping the “tougher cases” like myself whose hypothyroidism is outside of their control due to full-system failure. I find I can empathize more with those who have very serious and difficult conditions and who need more support. There are other people who can help those whose illness requires less intervention.
Sarah: Have you heard any horror stories about insensitive personal trainers when it comes to clients who are dealing with chronic illness?
Marisol: I have heard many horror stories about trainers (and endos too) that mostly center around not listening to the hypothyroid person’s symptoms. Most commonly trainers dismiss complaints that their clients are too tired to get up and work out in the morning or that it takes them two to three days to recover from a workout session [Sarah: reminds me of my last trainer!]. It might be hard to distinguish, but this is a legitimate concern when training hypo clients. In fact there have been several recent studies that came out in the Journal of Neuroendocrinology that suggest that T3 levels drop significantly in hypothyroid patients when their heart rate reaches 70 percent of the maximum heart rate. So what does that mean? That your body can’t convert T4 into T3 fast enough so the Free T3 levels drop and your body has to spend the next day balancing them back out.
I have had people tell me that trainers have put them on high- intensity interval training programs or cardio circuit programs with no success. When the programs fail, they blame the client’s eating habits and lack of effort [Sarah: I’m hoping a good friend of mine will chime in here about her experiences with one such trainer]. I have also heard of endocrinologists refusing to increase a patient’s dosage or try a new brand of medication. Instead they tell their patients to “get off their butts, exercise more and stop stuffing their faces with unhealthy food” [Sarah: a hypothyroid member of my own family was once told to “lay off the beer” when he complained to the doctor about his inability to lose weight!].
Sarah: What is your philosophy for your clients? Do you work differently with chronically ill clients?
Marisol: My philosophy for all clients is pretty much the same. Find out what their “Why” is and work with them where they are. If they don’t cook or have never been to a gym before, I’m not going to put them on a five-day weightlifting program and paleo meal plan! I am going to have them walk everyday for 30 minutes and set a goal of four clean eating days. I do find that chronically ill people have a more clearly defined “Why” such as “I don’t want to be sick any more; I don’t want to sleep 12 hours a day; I want to have more energy.” So it makes it easier to stick to the plan we put in place for them.
Sarah: Please tell me about some of your success stories. How does it feel to watch someone go through a transformation?
Marisol: This is a hard one. I only very recently took on any hypothyroid clients and they are still in the process of increasing their exercise and adjusting their eating habits. I think I’m finally getting to the point where I’ve figured out what works for my body. A lot of it had to do with the medication I was on. I switched over to compounded NDT almost three years ago and have been doing hard training – kettle balls and track. I have become very disciplined with my supplements and am paying attention to how much starch versus protein I’m eating. As a result, I was able to lower my dose this year for the first time ever. I also eliminated gluten from my diet. I’m still waiting to go for the blood test because the first time I lowered it I was still on gluten. Do your own clinical trial. Change one thing at a time. If you have an adrenal condition and it gets bad enough it will start to affect your thyroid. If you are never diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism is not necessarily the primary problem. This year I’ve taken my energy to a whole new level and I have the energy of a 12-year-old. That’s what makes it such a difficult disease because you look fine on the outside, but you’re falling apart on the inside. You don’t really get a lot of sympathy from many people. Even two years ago, going through a thirty-minute run was a struggle, but now I have constant energy. When I travel, I get out of my schedule and that messes me up due to the early morning departures and drives. I get tired more easily than others.
Sarah: What tips about fitness, diet and exercise do you have for our readers that specifically pertain to chronic illness and thyroid disease and hormones?
Marisol: People can contact me via Facebook, my Be Shocking Blog, here or follow me on Shockira, Pintrest or Twitter. The biggest tip I can give you is to stop reading all of the books, blogs and forums that claim to have quick fixes. Stay away from the self-pity party sites and negative people and surround yourself with positive people and inspiration. I’m serious. Hide their feeds on Facebook, make up an excuse not to meet them for coffee, ignore their texts, go into the other room if they are complaining. After you have cleared some space in your life and your mind, start an online or paper journal and document all of your food, supplements, medications, workouts and emotions. If you like, you can create one for free on iChange.com. Be sure you list me as your coach so I can provide feedback. This is not a typical journal; organize it in a way that you can refer back to the information later. Then look for trends. Do carbs make you sleepy? Does weightlifting help you lose more weight than running? So much of the information on the Internet is either wrong or only applicable for specific groups of people. I hesitate to give generic tips because hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are super tricky and depending on your exact condition my recommendations might differ entirely!