Fitness and health have always been a part of Be Well Philly Health Hero Challenge 2018 finalist, Alanna Gardner’s life. Her parents have said it was as if she learned to run before she walked. At 25 years old, Alanna encountered a major health scare. Up to that time, she was running races and taking spin classes, consistently working out, when she suffered a heart attack.
A long time before the heart attack she experienced symptoms, like fainting, but she didn’t know the cause. After her heart attack, she came to find that the symptoms were connected to a birth defect where her left coronary artery was attached to the right side of the heart and working vigorously to pump blood to the left side of the heart. The symptoms had always made her feel very limited, so while Alanna could have survived with a stent, a procedure used to treat blood vessels in the body, she chose to have open heart surgery as a preventative measure so she would no longer feel limited.
For this reason Alanna is a big supporter of the American Heart Association. The organization was something Alanna really poured herself into post-surgery, through their community outreach and events. She invests her efforts in educating others on preventative measures and recognizing warning signs for health issues. She shared, “It’s nice to be around both people who are invested in your experience and making sure that no one else has that similar experience if they can help it, but also a community of other woman and individuals who’ve experienced some sort of heart event and feel connected to you in that way. All parts of my story are attached to the American Heart Association.”
Your main motivation is wellness, what are all the ways you share this with the community?
I am a therapist at Philadelphia MFT, seeing individuals, couples, and being able to do that deep work with people to really improve their relationship with themselves and with other people. I feel like I always say to my clients relationships serve as a mirror, so whether or not it’s the relationship that you have with yourself or your friends, families or romantic partners, they all serve as evidence for your own level of health and wellness.
For me, I am always looking for ways to improve the inside, and the outside just happens to be a benefit. I also teach fitness classes in the city as an indoor cycling instructor with Flywheel Sports, and a megaformer workout with SLT (Strengthen Lengthen & Tone). In each of those things, I try not to focus on the outside, but on having the fitness routine be more aligned with quality of life.
How do you start your day?
Every morning, I meditate. It’s something I believe is so important for my own self-care and a way to quiet my mind and doesn’t challenge me to reach for the phone or emails. Also, feeding my body well and if I need to throughout the day, do more meditation if I need to ground myself.
What is your one go-to that is necessary for your wellbeing?
I have to drink water, doing the work that I do, I have to stay hydrated. Even in terms of mental health, your body goes into a state of anxiety and crisis when you’re dehydrated. You’re easily irritable, you’re easy to excite, easy to create a sense of urgency or anxiety within yourself, especially for someone who drinks coffee or caffeinated drinks, and you’re not replenishing it with water. Sometimes tiredness or hunger is really just thirst.
Why does the American Heart Association have so much meaning to you?
As someone who’s had a heart attack and as an open heart surgery survivor, everything about the different elements and parts of my story are all associated with different parts of what the American Heart Association puts towards their funds, efforts and initiatives. For instance, two women who happened to be nurses, but were CPR trained, were able to resuscitate me and keep my heart pumping and keep me alive until I was able to reach the hospital.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your experience that you share with others?
Through one part American Heart Association, another part family and friends, and my own journey and sheer will and determination, I was able to bounce back and go from just surviving to thriving — that’s something that’s very important to me. We can experience very traumatic things, but it doesn’t have to be something that totally rips you off your course of your life. It could be something that fosters certain things or characteristics about you that you never knew was there and that pushes you in the direction of where life was supposed to be going.
What health and fitness routines did you incorporate to bounce back?
Some people may think like, “I would be so scared,” but I wanted to get back to being me so badly. Part of being me was being this person that I was before the heart attack; someone who was still deeply connected to health and wellness. Part of the reason why I was able to survive such a massive heart attack was because I was so healthy before [it occurred]. Before I had the heart event, I was working out consistently — long runs, short runs, high-intensity interval training, weight lifting, boot camps, swimming, spin classes — that’s when I first got introduced to cycling. After surgery and once I was cleared to go ahead, the first thing that brought me back to myself was leaning into fitness, and leaning into health and wellness, slowly bringing everything back that I was doing previously.
What are your recommendations on how to get involved in being more health conscious?
Start where you can. Find something that interests you and that you know you can commit to and that you want to commit to, start with that and it will lead you to the next door.
What is your overall mission?
To take people from surviving to thriving in their life. Between running my own private practice but also working in boutique fitness, I am seeing wellness be a little more commodified and when wellness is commodified that, unfortunately, leaves some communities out. I am interested in learning about the different ways I, being who I am as a person of color who’s also a woman, could lean into reaching communities that look more like me or people who resonate with who I am. I’d be interested in how can we make health and wellness and that journey more accessible.
While continuing with fitness and therapy, Alanna is also launching the Black Women’s Wellness Network in December 2019. For more information, visit alannagardner.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed.