Photographed by Miles Aldridge, Vogue, April 2003"You're going to love it, I promise," said my friend Chelsea, when trying to convince me to go to an indoor cycling class with her. For months she had proposed the plan and I flat out refused, explaining to her that I simply did not go to exercise classes-with my petite frame, thankfully I didn't have to-and that my idea of a workout consisted mainly of climbing up the subway stairs in the morning and the occasional yoga class here and there. But one day, I'm not sure why, maybe out of curiosity, maybe because I kept hearing about how obsessed people were with this workout phenomenon, I agreed to go.
I knew from the moment my feet were locked into the pedals that this was a mistake. Then it began: the blaring music, the motivational screaming, the swooshing of wheels all around me . . . I hated every minute of it. I pedaled through the 45-minute class, sitting down a few times, and never listening when the instructor said to turn the resistance knob up (although at one point she came by and took care of that herself). After a final sprint on the bike, as my legs motioned in circles faster than I thought possible, the class was thankfully over. When I got off and touched the floor, my legs briefly buckled.
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The next day I woke up with the usual post-workout soreness. But the morning after that, the pain had become unbearable. My legs were swollen; I couldn't even bend my knees without screaming expletives. My husband told me, "It always hurts more two days after." And so I sucked it up, took Advil, and limped my way to work. At the office, my coworkers laughed when they saw me waddling in. I swore I would never go again, and they all said I shouldn't be discouraged, my body would feel better by tomorrow.
Since it was Friday night, I met up with a couple of friends at a gallery. At one point a wave of nausea overtook me, and as I headed to the bathroom to splash some water on my face, everything went black. Thankfully, a friend was there to catch me. "Probably just low blood sugar, nothing to worry about," he said. I continued on to a rooftop barbecue and before leaving around midnight, I went to the bathroom and noticed the water in the toilet that swirled away was dark brown. During the cab ride home, the hypochondriac in me kicked in and started Googling. The word rhabdomyolisis was popping up everywhere in my search results. Clicking from one link to the next, I started to panic. My symptoms were all there: severe muscle pain, dark urine, faintness, nausea. "Seek immediate medical attention" was the consensus. My husband told me to stop reading, that I was only freaking myself out. I hastily gave the taxi driver the address of the only hospital I could think of. Once there, I was promptly connected to a plethora of tubes and monitors and remained hospitalized for almost a week.
It turns out I had exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, which the doctors who came by the next morning said occurs in people who engage in intense exercise and are not normally physically active. This sudden increase causes skeletal muscles to break down rapidly, releasing proteins (such as myoglobin) into the bloodstream that can cause kidney damage and kidney failure. Stacey Gunn, M.D., resident, internal medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center explains why this process can lead to catastrophic results. "Both kidney failure and the breakdown of the muscle cells can disrupt the electrolyte levels, which can lead to abnormal or dangerous heart rhythms." My own CPK levels (what measures myoglobin in your system) were off the charts, which is why I had to remain under careful observation-I was hooked to a heart monitor to spot any irregularities-and supplied with significant amounts of fluids so my body could flush out the myoglobin. I must have gone through 30 IV bags during my stay.
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Not only was the experience terrifying and uncomfortable, but it was also very embarrassing. Every time I had to explain my symptoms to yet another doctor-"Well, I never workout and then I went to this cycling class . . . "-I was humiliated. But as I met more doctors and more nurses, I kept hearing the same thing. "We've seen this before in young people after attending one of those classes," said a resident. "Oh yeah, it's that and boot-camp classes that bring people in here," commented a nurse. Of course, I also heard other less common incidents, such as the story of several inmates from Rikers Island, who ended up with a bout of rhabdo after participating in a squat contest.
With the rise in popularity of high-intensity workouts and cycling classes, I thought it was unbelievable that I or anyone I know hadn't heard of this potentially life-threatening condition. Here I was, worried I wasn't getting enough exercise, and it never occurred to me that trying something new could actually have an adverse effect on my body. And while we are still trying to crack the code of how much exercise is enough a more important question is arising: How much is too much? Gym rookies like myself need to ease into a spin or boot-camp session (although Charles Okamura, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone also warns, "Cases have been seen in people who exercise regularly but suddenly increase the intensity of their workout"), yet these classes do exactly the opposite and the point of them is to push everyone in them to the limit. Although my muscular damage had been severe, I was lucky since I arrived at the hospital early and avoided any damage to my kidneys. It was only until the fifth day that doctors saw my CPK numbers trending down that I was allowed to finally go home.
It's been a week since this happened; my legs are still a little shaky, and I'm downing more than the recommended eight glasses of water a day-just in case. My doctor told me I shouldn't shy away from exercise because the risk of this happening again was low. But for now, let's just say, I'm sticking with my sun salutations.
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