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The Magic of Movement

Denise Graef shares warrior wisdom thanks to an autoimmune disease

The best type of workout is one that leaves you believing in yourself and bringing your best self forward. That’s the philosophy of personal trainer and master trainer, Denise Graef. Her training approach is inspired by the grit it takes to crush obstacles and the grace that springs from the support of others.

Denise's passion for movement becomes evident in any of her classes. Each reach has a reason and each flex, a purpose. Denise relishes the act of simply moving. It's no surprise that she grew up in an active household. “I loved to tumble, dance, and play flag football. My parents nurtured and supported my endeavors,” said Denise.

In her college days, Denise was on track to continue that active lifestyle when a life-altering diagnosis brought it all to a halt. “I noticed the bottoms of my feet hurting. I pushed through the pain and ignored my body's messages until, when I was 20 years old, I couldn’t walk. Every joint in my body screamed at me. It took until close to my 21st birthday before a devastating diagnosis was made. They told me it was Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).”

Denise’s reaction to her diagnosis sparked a warrior within. “The fight was on,” she said. “I fought my way—many times the hard way and with limited resources—to become strong and overcome this autoimmune disease. I felt isolated and alone in the fight. I didn't know anyone else with the disease. For many years, I tried to hide the fact that I had it.” Then, in 2001, Denise met two professionals who changed her mind about what living with RA could look like. Their support transformed her fight into a mission. “That was a game changer.”

Eventually, Denise’s growing belief in herself eclipsed the fear of RA controlling her life. She even decided to join her sons in Taekwondo class. “I love the martial arts but back then I was petrified that I was going to hurt my joints. I humbly approached my master instructor and told him what the obstacle was. Once again, I was blown away by the support and care. Step by step, little by little, I built the strength and belief back to the point of victory. I didn’t give up. On February 20, 2013, I received my black belt in Taekwondo.”

Now, she aims to nurture confidence in all of her clients by training their minds as well as their bodies. One client has worked with Denise for eight years and achieved significant health gains. “When we first started, she was frustrated, out of breath, and feeling weak,” Denise said. “But, she kept showing up. Today, she is completely off her cholesterol medication, has increased her respiratory health, and has a beautifully healthy blood pressure. She only needed someone to hear her and help her see that not only were those lifestyle changes attainable, but she could thrive and inspire others as well.”

Denise’s life and lifework have become about so much more than managing RA. She helps people train their bodies but she also models the spirit of a champion. “Things circle around,” she said. “Now, I endeavor to have a similar impact on someone else's life no matter the obstacles they face...I like to tell people, ‘You are stronger than you think.’”

Find Denise at Missoula’s Lifelong Learning Center or reach out through her website DeniseGraef.com.

“I noticed the bottoms of my feet hurting. I pushed through the pain and ignored my body's messages until, when I was 20 years old, I couldn’t walk." - Denise Graef

“I love the martial arts but back then I was petrified that I was going to hurt my joints...Step by step, little by little, I built the strength and belief back to the point of victory. I didn’t give up. On February 20, 2013, I received my black belt in Taekwondo.” - Denise Graef

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