I’ve had the unique experience of living with some sort of injury or condition that prevented me from exercise all the way from birth. Growing up, I was plagued with asthma and allergies. No sports for me. I couldn’t run around the block without triggering an asthma attack and the hives I got from rolling around in the grass or drinking a glass of milk ensured I was in the doctor’s office twice a week before school for allergy shots. The allergist told me then that I was allergic to everything they could test for. That remark was repeated by my family physician when I was well into my thirties. In elementary school I had chronic knee dislocations. If I ran and twisted just the wrong way, I would collapse to the ground after one knee or the other spontaneously dislocated and usually just popped back in. This condition also continued into adulthood, so you can imagine that physical activity was not at the top of my priority list.
Before CrossFit I even attempted to get in shape by religiously doing pushups and sit-ups every morning before work. I had a pretty good routine going until I broke my collarbone hiking on vacation that year. Needless to say, the pushups and sit-ups were forgotten during recovery and I never returned to them. Also, needless to say, I blamed the stupid hike for breaking my collarbone. I mean, why even bother with the outdoors?
I don’t know why it was the worst of all my conditions that caused me to do something drastic. I think it was through the experience of back surgery that I realized how amazing and resilient the human body really is. The surgeons and therapists wanted me up and walking immediately after surgery. I was surprised that after cutting me open and removing a piece of my spine that I wasn’t supposed to be in some sort of full body cast for months. But, I wasn’t. My body healed, and apparently, staying active helped that. So, when that pain came back years later, I looked to physical activity as a real way to improve my situation.
Again, I was fortunate enough to have physical therapists hold my hand through all of this. And, because they knew my laundry list of conditions, we were able to progress in a direction that not only strengthened my degenerating lower back, but also fixed my chronic knee dislocations. The metabolic conditioning I was subjected to vastly improved my lung capacity and the Paleo diet has all but cured my allergies and regular sinus infections. Now, during allergy season, I look on as close friends and coworkers suffer through the same symptoms I used to. My allergies have become much more bearable with only the occasional sinus headache providing some random annoyance. My family doctor was seeing me four or five times a year and recommending sinus surgery before I went Paleo. Now, I only see him once a year for my annual physical. I know he misses me, because his office called last week to remind me that it’s been over a year already. Go figure.
This back issue I have will probably never go away. In fact, I re-injured it doing something dumb a couple years ago while showing a friend how to do a kettle bell swing. I hadn’t warmed up and I chose a heavy kettle bell. Not smart. I pulled something in my back, or maybe even moved a disc or something. I’m still not sure what I did. But, by this point I was aware enough of my own body and injury level to know how to approach it. I called it “active recovery” at the time. I knew I’d hurt myself, and I knew it was my fault. But, I was also armed now with the knowledge of my own limits. I knew what still functioned and what needed healing. So…I continued to CrossFit. But, I modified my routine and scrapped overhead weights and moved to more bodyweight modifications of the prescribed workouts. I went easy on the days that might otherwise be taxing on my lower back. I traded light rowing for running and, most importantly, I devised a stretching routine that I followed several times a day. You know, the stuff the doctors tell you to do that you think is stupid. I guess that stuff works. I saw my surgeon and physical therapists regularly for progress updates and learned the difference between real pain and the soreness associated with strength-building and recovery. And, I got better. It took time, but I actually got stronger in some areas during recovery.
What I did not do was stop. I realized I didn’t have to. Being in shape includes some rough spots and setbacks. There are days I wonder if my back condition will bring me to the point of needing a wheelchair. I hope not, but I think I won’t even let that keep me from maintaining the pieces of me that can still be strong. I think being in shape changes your emotions and outlook. On the whole, the active community has fewer cases of depression and even wider social circles, which means we are emotionally better prepared to handle the misfortune that comes with everyday life. And, as accident-prone and plague-ridden as I am, I figure I can use any advantage I can find.