BY Benjamin Ryan
September 30 2009 12:00 AM ET
For some, though, side effects of medications threaten to keep them away from the gym. But to the determined, such stumbling blocks are only in place to be thrown aside.
Annie Elmer, a physical trainer from Cottage Grove, Minn., who has a love of the outdoors, was on her dream vacation in 2006: a backpacking trip through Montana’s Glacier National Park. On the morning of a 19-mile day hike she was having so many gastrointestinal problems that she could hardly keep down her breakfast. Still, she refused to let the symptoms rob her of a special day.
“My stomach hurt for the first seven miles,” the 50-year-old recalls. “I would have to sit down, and I would just bawl with frustration that my body couldn’t do what I know it can do. The year before, I wouldn’t get winded or anything. Then, toward the top of the hike I prayed to God, and instantly the pain was just gone. I was able to have the rest of the day be a good day.”
Los Angeles resident Arlene Frames, like Ansell, is hoping to win the battle against lipodystrophy through diet and exercise. The 49-year-old grandmother likes to kick-start her day with a cardio workout. But nausea often threatens to prevent her from getting her plan into gear.
“I’ve been through some pretty bad side effects on medication,” she says. The effects can be so disorienting that sometimes “I don’t know how I even drove to the gym,” she adds. “But no matter how bad I would feel, I knew if I could just get to the gym and be there for the first 20 minutes and work out, then after I make it over that hump, I would feel so good for the rest of the day. It’s remarkable.”
Some form of regular exercise can have yet another -- even if intangible -- bonus besides helping to ease the side effects of medications and to improve endurance. Studies have shown that exercise can be a potent antidote to the symptoms of depression, which is a common ailment that afflicts many HIVers. And Frames is quick to attest how her workouts have improved her quality of life.
“Exercise helps everything,” Frames says of her workouts. “It helps my emotional state of being, and it helps my physical state of being -- and actually my spiritual state of being. AIDS is bad enough, but it can be beaten. It can be conquered.”
Whether the virus itself can be kept at bay as a result of a healthy lifestyle is a matter of scientific mystery. So far, no research has been able to prove that diet and exercise can lower a viral load or increase a T-cell count. Hand says the lack of proof can be blamed on poorly designed studies. His group at the University of South Carolina hopes to conduct a large clinical trial on the matter.
For someone like Kaijson Noilmar, though, the proof is in the pudding. “My numbers -- in regard to my HIV -- were the best when I was in the best shape,” says the 33-year-old former college athlete who is now a business consultant in Renton, Wash. His weight has been on a yo-yo cycle over the past few years. “The more in shape I am, the lower my body-fat percentage is, and the better my numbers are going to be.”
Ansell agrees. “My T-cell count is better than it’s ever been in 20 years of being HIV-positive,” he says. “My cholesterol and lipid profile is virtually normal for the first time in many, many years, and my doctor attributes that to diet and exercise.”
“A lot has been said about what the medications do to our body -- cholesterol and bodily changes, for example,” Ansell continues, “but I think that, as HIV-positive people, we have to be responsible for our lifestyle, and our lifestyle contributes to all of those factors.”
How does he feel knowing that he is winning the battle against HIV thanks to his own proactive attitude? “It’s just another one of those moments that reinforces that I can do anything,” Ansell says. “A person’s attitude is everything. If you think it’s possible, then you’re going to do it.”