This month’s HN Inspiration is Mirna Valerio, mother, distance runner, and writer of Fat Girl Running. We find Mirna to be an inspiration because she challenges the stereotypes of fitness and health and provides a powerful example to others.
Health Noir (HN): I understand that your weight loss journey began with your doctor issuing you the warning that you would not live to see your son grow up if you didn’t lose weight. Had you thought about losing weight or pursuing a healthier lifestyle before that moment?
Mirna Valerio (MV): About a year before this incident, I lived in Maryland, where I was still adjusting to having to drive everywhere, living and working where I had no family support network (my husband stayed behind in New York to work), where I had a very stressful job, and also where my son spent many days home from school because of asthma and other ailments. I was stressed out. It was also new to me to have to drive absolutely everywhere. I noticed that I was gaining weight fairly rapidly and tried a few times to lose it through exercise and some modifications to my diet. I would go for a few weeks and then my son would be ill again, or I would be ill, or work consumed my life. I decided to move to New Jersey.
This new job was also stressful. My son contracted pneumonia in our first couple of weeks. I was also commuting back and forth to Maryland on the weekends to continue teaching my private voice and piano students. My lifestyle was one of work and family and fitness did not, and as I perceived it then, could not fit into my schedule.
That all changed, of course, after I had been issued what amounted to an ultimatum from my cardiologist.
Health Noir (HN): What would you say is your biggest motivation for staying active? Why did you choose running?
Mirna Valerio (MV): Being active makes me feel good. It really comes down to this. It makes me feel strong, powerful and able to conquer most things. Also, I am a healthier person because I choose to be very active on an almost daily basis. In addition, it is my job to be a positive role model for my son, my family members and my students.
Health Noir (HN): How did you eventually come to accept your body as it is meant to be? What advice would you give to people who haven’t reached the same level of acceptance you have?
Mirna Valerio (MV): I have always accepted my body the way it is. I come from a family full of people who appreciate bodies in whatever size or shape they’re in. Body image has never been an issue for me. This is not to say that I didn’t know that it needed some changing for the better. There are still things that I’m working on body-wise and spirit-wise. It’s all an incredible, beautiful journey.
We have got to honor and respect our bodies for what they can do RIGHT NOW. Were you able to get up out of bed and walk to the bathroom? Yes? Your body did that? Were you able to walk to your car? Yes? Your body did that. Let’s honor our bodies now, and continue to honor them by doing what we need to keep them.
Health Noir (HN): What is your response to people who think fitness and health are all about aesthetics?
Mirna Valerio (MV): People have vastly different reasons for trying to achieve fitness and health. Some people do it for aesthetic reasons. Some people do it to feel better inside and out. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. BUT, people who think that fitness and health are both exclusively about looks are, in my opinion, misinformed about what these things look like in different bodies and in different situations.
Health Noir (HN): Do you pair your physical fitness activities with other mental, emotional, or spiritual health activities?
Mirna Valerio (MV): Not really, although when I do my longs runs I am usually alone. This gives me much needed space, quiet, and time to focus on what’s going on in my head. I guess you could say it’s a meditative practice.
Health Noir (HN): As an African American woman, you know that we as a community tend to have different perceptions about health and wellness than other communities. Stories like yours are very inspiring and inclusive because they challenge stereotypes that have excluded us for a long time. How do you think we can begin to reframe conversations about health and fitness to improve our health as a community?
Mirna Valerio (MV): I think that women in general, and African American women in particular have this idea that we need to take care of everybody without ever really thinking about or knowing how to take care of ourselves first. We are often guilted by society and ourselves into thinking that we are the sole keepers of our families and the world. This has a tremendously negative effect on our health and wellness. We’ve got to take charge of our own bodies, our own health (emotional, physical, spiritual) and get ourselves out of this kind of destructive thinking. Life doesn’t wait, but death does. I’d rather live my life than wait on death.