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CHD and Sports

Friday, July 07, 2017

By Deb Flaherty-Kizer

Sports? Me? No way. “Sports” and “athlete” were never words in my vocabulary. My CHD diagnosis was not made until I was a young adult—it was thought I just had a heart murmur—so I never linked my tiredness to a heart condition. I was not athletic as a child, never understanding why I couldn’t run as fast as the other kids or keep up with them in gym class. I was usually the last one picked for a team, and was often bullied for my lack of athletic prowess. For me, team sports did not work. I felt like a total failure in all things athletic. Thank goodness, I excelled at academics.

But little by little, sports and fitness entered my life. One of my proudest moments was passing the physical fitness test for admission to the United States Naval Academy. The first time I took the test, I failed miserably. A second-chance test was offered, for which I dutifully prepared. I even went so far as to do chin-ups in my college dorm’s shower stall. I passed, and was ready to join the first class of women at the Academy.

However, the subsequent comprehensive physical exam, my last hurdle, revealed the true extent of my “murmur.” I had the rare CHD called Ebstein’s anomaly. My admission was rescinded, and I was devastated. I vowed to stay as healthy and fit as possible.

Receiving my CHD diagnosis was almost freeing in some ways. I knew there was a reason for my lack of athletic ability—I wasn’t just being lazy. I was surprised when my congenital cardiologist encouraged me to participate in physical activity—his only words of advice were to rest if I got tired. I managed to participate in gym class in college, as well as activities such as tennis and fencing. Fortunately, I always found a participant willing to go at my pace, so I never felt guilty about holding them back.

One sport I particularly enjoyed when younger was horseback riding. I enjoyed competing in local dressage shows, and my horse Jubi (a retired school horse) and I would usually win! For the first time in my life, I felt like an athlete! That encouraged me to try other sports and activities, such as swimming, strength training, and even boxing!

Two years ago, at age 57, I had my first open heart surgery. According to my surgeon, although it was difficult and recovery long, the fact that I had been exercising regularly clearly hastened the recovery process. Up until right before my surgery, I was swimming at least 20 laps a day and walking our dog.

Cardiac rehabilitation was a lifesaver for me. I was ready to get moving again, even though I was a somewhat anxious about my exercise tolerance. However, in cardiac rehab, I was being monitored by cardiac nurses and felt safe. It was a wonderful way to build my confidence and tolerance.

It was important for me to set fitness goals during my recovery. I set a goal of walking a 5K within a year of my surgery, which was May 22, 2015. On May 8, 2016, I complete the Mother Lovin’ 5K in nearby Saratoga Springs, NY. Yes, I was dead last—but I finished. I have learned not to care or stress about my time or place—I am happy just to finish! I am only competing against myself.

Being active helps keep your heart and body healthy. So even a person who has restrictions can still exercise within limits. Your doctor can help create a set of activities at a level that is safe and healthy for you1. Your doctor might also suggest target heart rate goals and limits, how long to exercise, and how often to exercise2. After completing my cardiac rehab program, my cardiologist encouraged me to go back to the activities I loved—swimming and walking. Again, the same advice held—if I get tired, just rest.

Having an “unseen” illness can be trying. People don’t understand why I can’t climb five flights of stairs or run a 20-minute mile. I have learned to accept my limitations while testing them. I’ve learned to know my body and assess what I can physically do on any given day. I have also learned to take the support, encouragement, and help from others. When I walked my second 5K post-surgery, my dear friend walked the entire way with me. I was dead last, but I finished. Without her support, I may not have made it. An online exercise support group I belong to also encourages me. No matter how small my accomplishment may be, they cheer me on.

I hopefully inspire and motivate others to be at their physical best, no matter what their condition. I have found that the more I exercise, the better I feel—it’s that first step that is the most difficult. The key is picking a sport or activity that you love and will keep doing!

Note: Always make sure to check with your ACHD cardiologist before beginning any exercise routine.

1. Warnes CA, et al. (2008). ACC/AHA 2008 Guidelines for the management of adults with congenital heart disease: Executive summary: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation, 118(23): 2395–2451.

2. Sable C, et al. (2011). Best practices in managing transition to adulthood for adolescents with congenital heart disease: The transition process and medical and psychosocial issues: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 123(13): 1454–1485.



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The opinions expressed by ACHA bloggers and those providing comments on the ACHA Blog are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Adult Congenital Heart Association or any employee thereof. ACHA is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the ACHA bloggers.

The contents of this blog are presented for informational purposes only, and should not be substituted for professional advice. Always consult your physicians with your questions and concerns.

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