36. Turning pain into strength with Lyme warrior Gina Valles

Episode 36 cover image: a person ties their running shoes on a trail, headshots of Sarah Cormode and Gina Valles

This week Sarah is joined by Gina Valles, a fitness coach with a degree in exercise science who founded Gina’s Total Fitness in Connecticut. In 2018, Gina was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which changed her life and outlook on fitness. Through her Instagram account, which has almost 180,000 followers, Gina shares her journey, workouts, and inspiration.

Gina explains that she lived with undiagnosed Lyme disease for a year in 2017 before being diagnosed. She knew nothing about the disease then, but has educated herself and learned how to adjust her exercise routine and manage on a day-to-day basis. Gina was a competitive athlete throughout her life, and when she got sick she had to adjust her workout routines to focus more on lower intensity movement and listening to her body. She emphasizes that it took time, trial and error to find a fitness routine that works for her.

“When I got sick, things started changing. I couldn’t train as hard as I wanted to. I couldn’t really do high-intensity stuff anymore. It’s very hard for me to sweat, so I had to just really adjust my workouts to use more body weight and more flow and lower intensity. So even though I am still an athlete, there are times when I can go a bit harder on good days, but it’s just more about movement now. So I’ve just really adjusted my workouts a lot.”

Gina Valles

Listening to your body

Gina explains that it’s a daily struggle, but as time goes on, you have to accept and be grateful for the body you have and the movements you are able to do. When she was first diagnosed, she says she pushed herself to do high intensity workouts she loved, but her body told her no. Over time, she learned to accept this reality and change her mindset about her body and its abilities — and that these changes don’t make her any less of an athlete.

“I think the hardest part was accepting it. But once you start accepting it, it changes your mindset about it. So now I’m just grateful to have a body that I can move, and I might not be able to squat on the bar 225 anymore, but you know what I can squat still 135 or 105, and it’s just being grateful for what you can do now. And it’s not that you’re less of an athlete or you’re not as strong. I feel stronger than ever in a different way.”

Gina Valles

Lyme warriors

Sarah asks Gina about a quote from her Instagram: “Stronger than ever, a Lyme warrior will always turn pain into strength.” Gina explains that she has changed her mindset around the pain she has endured throughout her journey with Lyme disease. While she could view it as making her weaker, she instead takes all of the pain — mental, physical, and emotional — and turns it into strength and a sense of purpose. 

How can others find their own inner warrior? For Gina, going through any type of adversity and hitting rock bottom forces you to dig deep and find the strength within yourself to get up every day. Gina says, “Be 1% better every day!” 

“I think everyone thinks being a warrior is just being strong all the time, and that’s not the case, being a warrior is falling down and feeling low and being sick, and getting up every day and giving your best, and trying to be 1% better. And I think that comes from within, you have to dive deep within and find that inner warrior within yourself.”

Gina Valles

Staying fit with Lyme

When it comes to fitness, Gina explains that she has done a lot of trial and error when it comes to figuring out how to stay fit with Lyme disease, from strength training to cardio. She has found that for her, a mix of everything has helped her. That means listening to her body when she wakes up in the morning to assess what her body is saying and craving, whether that be a walk for blood flow or lifting some weights. She emphasizes that there is no set system that will work for everyone.

Sarah mentions how Ironman athlete Angela Naith was on Looking at Lyme earlier this season and spoke about how high impact sports like running were more challenging and took longer to recover, whereas biking and swimming worked better for her. But Gina explains how running actually feels great for her body, as it increases blood flow, illustrating how it really depends on the person. For her, a lot of heavy lifting can cause her body to shut down. 

How do you know when you’ve pushed it too far? Gina says she can feel it in her body — her heart rate skyrockets and she feels anxiety, or heart palpitations, or her joints hurt. But she adds that because there are different co-infections with Lyme disease, everyone’s body is different. For example, while some people who have Lyme disease can’t tolerate heat, Gina finds that heat works better for her, and that she can’t tolerate cold weather when she’s exercising. To support recovery, Gina explains that she uses sauna therapy, red light therapy, cryotherapy, and mitochondria therapy. 

Sharing your story

As someone who is also public about her experience with Lyme, Sarah asks Gina how sharing her story with others helps. While Gina says that sharing her journey does help her, she emphasizes that for her it’s about connecting with others to make them feel like they’re not alone. She has received many positive messages on Instagram from others who have found comfort and support in her story.

“That’s the best feeling in the world, just helping other people and seeing the change and having them be the change, because if I help one person, that person can help another person…I just want to help people and make them believe, to find that inner warrior and to not give up and there is hope.”

Gina Valles

Gina reminds us that while there is hope, that doesn’t mean there aren’t bad days, but it’s all part of the journey. While it’s not about curing yourself, it’s about managing the disease and finding strength in where you are. It’s been a long road for Gina since 2017, with Lyme disease as well as Epstein-Barr and mononucleosis, on top of the stress of owning a gym during COVID-19, but she says she’s experienced a lot of post-traumatic growth.

Gina is launching a new brand called “Immune” on May 18, for all warriors but especially those with Lyme disease. While she can’t give the full details yet, she says it’s going to include health, nutrition, workouts, and more.

You can follow Gina’s Instagram @ginavallesfit for workouts and inspiration, and her gym @ginas_total_fitness, and @immunewarrior_ for her new brand for autoimmune warriors. She encourages listeners to connect with her and to feel free to send her a DM.

Thank you so much Gina for your strength and for bringing hope to so many people!

Related resources

Episode 36 cover image: a person ties their running shoes on a trail, headshots of Sarah Cormode and Gina Valles

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