Invisible Illness Vs. Fitness

When you look at Miss Delaware County, Teena Handline, you do not see her illnesses. Since 2010, as a result of a car accident, Teena was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Syringomyelia and PCOS – all very different disorders that affect different parts of her body and work together in a funky dysfunctional family. Prior to these diagnoses, she enjoyed high intensity, bootcamp style workouts, and fun fitness classes like Zumba. However, Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia turned for the worse in the fall of 2011; Teena was rushed to the hospital for emergency neurosurgery. After twenty-five staples, a shaved head, and almost two weeks in the hospital, her recovery journey began. She gained roughly 40 pounds over the course of the last few years, primarily because her mindset was not in the best place. Frustration crept in because she was not able to do the things she could before. It took a long period of time before Teena accepted the things she could not do anymore and wiped the slate clean to adapt to this “new normal.”  

New Normal

But Teena couldn’t accept this as her new normal. Six months into her recovery, she began to start swimming and riding a stationary bike a few times a week. She eventually moved into taking a spin class. She needed to tailor the classes to meet her needs. She slowly began to branch out trying a class in strength training. Not letting her physical limitations stop her she listened to her body and would modify the workouts to prevent dizziness or exercises that could cause a migraine.


I feel modification and exercise has a bad connotation to it when really it is permitting an individual to complete an exercise utilizing the correct muscles or in Teena’s case being able to continue to be active and try new things despite her invisible illnesses. Teena states,

 “This idea of modification has taught me how to be adaptable and flexible to not only trying new things, but especially to not get discouraged in not being able to do the things I knew I would cause discomfort. It taught me that modifications are okay – it didn’t make me weaker, or less active, or less adequate. My thought process would be was, “I know my body, that’s not a good idea. I will certainly do a modified version, and if the modified becomes too easy, I will try a few of the regular kinds, even if slow or just a few.” To me, the word “can’t” during this whole process was temporary. I took the time to listen to how certain movements (i.e. burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers) felt with my body. It took a good three years for my neck to establish the stability necessary to do these movements again (And now I can without ANY discomfort!)”

About four and half years post-op, Teena is continuing to feel well enough to keep testing the waters through listening to her body knowing her limitations are not limiting her rather letting her limitations propel her to gain greater strength, a healthier diet, drop 4 dress sizes and lose 40 pounds. At the beginning of this month, Teena again raised the bar to challenge herself and ran her first 5k (Run for Freedom 5k in Malvern, PA). Teena says, “I sure wasn't the fastest, but my goal was to finish, and I did!”

Take Away

“What this fitness journey thus far (it isn’t over yet!) has taught me is to not only be patient, but to be positive. This journey hasn’t only taught me how to train to be physically stronger, but also mentally. As much as I wish I didn’t have these invisible illnesses, these tribulations have taught me never to quit, keep fighting, and with that mindset I can do absolutely anything! The minute negative thoughts consume your mind, you're letting these disorders sit in the driver’s seat of your life (I know that feeling first hand). It was imperative for me to stay in the driver’s seat and stay in control. Of course there are days my body just says “NO! Not today!” and I oblige, but ever since I’ve regained a steady level of physical activity, I feel amazing, confident and happier than ever!”

Teena’s message is a powerful message. Fitness is a journey. A journey you take with yourself to understand your own limitations whether it is in a form of invisible illness, a physical limitation, time constraints, or limited resources. The thing with fitness is you do not need much- patience with yourself and a positive mindset. Too often we expect one workout to magically achieve our goals or one bad rep ruin our entire workout. We quit on ourselves too soon. We let the distractions in life or our own limitations prevent us from doing things. Fitness is a journey taken one rep at a time, one step at a time, each time challenging and believing in you that you are capable, that you are strong, you can do it.

April 2015 (Left); June 2016 (Right)

April 2015 (Left); June 2016 (Right)


To learn more about Teena Handline- Mrs. Delaware County, This Saturday she is competing Mrs. Pennsylvania America this coming Saturday, June 18, 2016.

Teena Handline-Mrs Delaware County America 2016

Teena Handline-Mrs Delaware County America 2016