By Sasha Reddy
Jenn Palacio walks into every Zumba class with an extra pep in her step. She exudes a contagious vivacity and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of every single one of her students. But Jenn’s enthusiasm for teaching comes from a more somber time in her life. Not many people know of the struggles she has had to overcome to gain the bubbling confidence she has today.
With the birth of her first child, Bella, Jenn experienced the same hardships as any new mother. Learning to parent a newborn for the rst time was of course no walk in the park; in fact, Jenn left her job as a paralegal to allow for more time with her daughter. It was difficult, but it was manageable, and Jenn’s love for Bella never ceased as she grew. But with her second child, Jack, whom she loves no less, she began to notice changes in her mental state. “When he cried, I didn’t have the energy to get up to take care of him,” she recalls. And it wasn’t just her emotions towards Jack that were impacted. Getting up to take Bella to preschool in the mornings became a daunting daily task, and Jenn often found herself without the will to bathe her children, run errands, or carry out other simple chores. It didn’t take long for things to spiral from bad to worse.
A few months after Jack’s birth in 2007, Jenn began to experience panic attacks. Suffering from as many as four onsets per day made daily tasks even more of a feat than before. If an attack began while she was driving to the store or from Bella’s school, Jenn would have to immediately pull over to the shoulder to park and wait for the waves of angst and fear to subside. Every attack left her feeling immobile and powerless. The kids were both still too young at the time to have awareness of what their mother was going through, and Jenn’s state of mind continued to worsen.
Jenn reached her breaking point when one particularly bad episode in 2009 landed her in the emergency room. It was there that she was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Despite having lived out all of the symptoms, the physician’s diagnosis caught the whole family off guard. No one expects to be the one on the receiving end of news like that; it was a devastating blow to her own morale, to say the least. Jenn initially felt that she had let down not just her children and husband, but herself, too. “When you’re diagnosed, you feel weak. You feel like you failed,” she says. But she soon overcame that initial sense of defeat.
Jenn began seeking help immediately following her trip to the hospital. In addition to staying in touch with a physician, she turned to counseling for assistance. To reclaim a stable mind and attain the quality of life she yearned for, she would have to make a serious investment in herself and her healing process. The big changes started with her diet. Her new physician-prescribed nutrition plan called for more high-protein, natural foods and less complex carbs, less sugar, and little to no caffeine or alcohol. Not only did her new eating habits help her and a better mindset, but they also helped her lose about 60 pounds and reclaim her pre- baby weight. Jenn was also prescribed a new medication to accompany her diet and help quell the panic attacks. But while all these steps aided Jenn, her recovery would prove to be a long journey. She still had a ways to go.
A few weeks after starting the medication, Jenn began participating in Zumba® at HAC. She left about halfway through her first class, but it wasn’t the physical demand that drove her out. Rather, her frame of mind still wasn’t quite right; her depression was still sitting in the driver’s seat. Walking into that studio full of people was overwhelming, and the environment alone had her heart racing, but she continued attending classes. Even though she risked anxiety flare-ups with every class, the exhilarating feeling of blood pumping and endorphins racing kept Jenn coming back week after week. For years she had missed out on a normal lifestyle because of her lack of energy, but Zumba® changed all of that. “This is how I want to feel all day,” she thought. Eventually, by coming to class regularly and continuing to take her medication, Jenn was able to dance her way through a full hour-long class without any problems.
More time passed before Jenn really began to make headway in her battle against depression. About six months after that rst Zumba® class, her panic attacks ceased entirely. While her short-lived yoga practice did help Jenn to achieve this goal, she credits most of her personal progress to Zumba®. Bouncing, strutting, and dancing alongside other group fitness goers helped tame her anxiety and regain control of her emotions. It was also around this time that Jenn was approached by HAC’s late Group Fitness Director, Kim Bogia, and Group Fitness Instructor, Musulain Toomer, with an interesting proposal. Both ladies wanted Jenn to teach Zumba® at HAC.
Pictured: Jenn teaching a HAC Member favorite class, Strong by Zumba
In October 2009, Jenn received her certification to instruct. She has been teaching Zumba®, Zumba® Toning, and Strong by Zumba® classes at HAC ever since.
It wasn’t until becoming an instructor that Jenn realized just how many members have found themselves in the same boat at one point or another. In the seven-plus years of her HAC employment, she has met members enduring all sorts of conditions, from cancer to mental illness and other turmoils. Having already reached and redeemed herself from her lowest point, Jenn is determined to always be a resource to these people, whether they need a recommendation for a physician, a shoulder to cry on, or a friend to drive over and yank them out of bed in the morning. Her journey has taught her that even little words of encouragement can be monumental for someone suffering the way she has suffered, so she’s always looking for ways to give back to her students and community. “I do it because I care. I’ve been there. There is hope,” Jenn says.
Regaining control after her postpartum depression diagnosis has given Jenn the
confidence and motivation to achieve her best self, and her progress hasn’t stopped since becoming an instructor. Almost spontaneously one morning in 2014, she woke up
feeling that something was still missing and that there was still some goal left for her to exceed; she began vigorously training to run a half marathon. Preparing for a race in only eight short weeks is a tall order for anyone, especially a new runner, but that didn’t stop her from pouring herself into each workout. During her training, she did the Rocky Balboa Run 10k in Philly with fellow running newcomer and HAC Member, Liz Williams. Shortly after, she ran her half marathon, completing the 13.1 miles in under two hours. Jenn is still a frequent race competitor – in fact, the Palacio family has made a tradition of training for and completing the Rocky Balboa Run together each year.
Just thinking about her self-transformation brings a tear to Jenn’s eye. “My condition will never define who I am,” she says. “I define who I am.” Being surrounded by so many wonderful people that inspire her to continue giving 110% every day – her students, her co-workers, her children Bella and Jack, her husband Rick, and so many others – has been a blessing she will always cherish.
Jenn: after coming such a long way since your war with depression to become the passionate and motivated instructor, mother, and woman you are today, we absolutely couldn’t be prouder.