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How Exercise Made Me Face My Fears

How Exercise Made Me Face My Fears

Do you ever catch yourself saying something along the lines of “when I was younger I was really good at [insert impressive activity here]”? Well when I was younger I was really good at playing the piano, in fact instead of becoming a nurse I considered (for a very brief moment) going to conservatory and making music my profession. My grand piano is still my baby even though it has to live at my parents house…an apartment in the ‘burbs of NYC could never contain its beauty, and would probably rapidly accumulate noise complaints.

This means my piano and I have been living apart for a decade and in that time I have been completely consumed by the study and practice of medicine. I have become an expert in the fields on Critical Care, Neurosurgery, and MS but my piano playing has become quite rusty. I still love to play but it frustrates me that I am no longer as good as I once was and it seems too difficult, impossible even, to have the enough time to devote towards becoming great again. I admit, the fear of failing at something I was once great at keeps me from trying at times. So now I say, “when I was younger I was a great piano player”, past tense.

Recently I caught myself doing it again, “before I had MS I was really athletic”. That pesky past tense. I was afraid to pick up a barbell again, because I knew that I couldn’t lift the kind of weight that I used to. I didn’t want to run, because I knew I wouldn’t even be able to complete a mile. The fear of failing at something I was once great at started to invade my mind once again. Then I started reading research about how exercise could improve fatigue, balance, bowel and bladder function, and depression. After that I came across more and more articles by patients, some with little or no disability and some who were severely disabled, about how exercise has improved their lives. All the research and data that I found appealed to my scientific (aka nerdy) brain, and I immediately knew I that had to change my mindset and get back to the gym before I let fear get the better of me.

So I went back to gym, and I decided that the best way to be successful was to act like I had just been in a “Freaky Friday” style incident. I had to learn how to exist in a different body then the one I had come to know so well. I had to invest the time and effort into learning how it moved, what its limits were, and what it was capable of doing with a little pushing. I eventually found a fitness routine that works for the new me.  I now particularly like swimming and using the indoor stationary bike with the AC cranked high. It may not be a routine that would have impressed me in my younger years, but it’s appropriate for me now and it keeps me fit and feeling good. I try not to compare myself now to myself then, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. I also don’t sweat it (pun intended) if I have to take a few days or even a weeks off because of my MS symptoms. The gym will always be there waiting for me when I’m ready, all I have to do is overcome my fear of going back.

For me exercise has helped in a couple of different ways. It has increased my self esteem by showing me that my body can still do some pretty impressive things, 15 minutes of cardio a few times a week has helped my fatigue, and muscle strengthening has helped me manage my symptoms. For me leg numbness is a problem, and often even just walking can make my right leg go completely numb. I now work out in front of a mirror while I weight train and while I do simple exercises like squats or trying to balance on one leg. During these exercises I try to take note of where my right leg and foot are because my personal theory is that having a visual helps me know where my leg should go even when I can’t feel it. It’s like in school when teachers use different visual, tactile, and auditory tools to help students fully grasp a new concept. Instead of just using a machine or doing a movement over and over again, I also  visualize the motion too.

For me, everything that I do on my good days is to prepare myself to overcome the bad days. My body will, inevitably, require me to do battle against my MS again and again. The least I can do is prepare it for the fight. I may just have grown up around too many friends and family who are in the military but I look at exercise as a way of having my own 6, hoorah!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  • Motl, R.W., Pilutti, L.A. (2012). The benefits of exercise training in multiple sclerosis. Nature Reviews Neurology. 8(9), 487-497.


  • thughes
    6 years ago

    Stephanie, thanks you for your inspiring story. I too was once a talented tennis player. Played for 22 years. Went to State competition for my high school, played years in college and after. I found myself saying the same thing these past four years. The gym has NOT been my friend and I find myself failing at “getting back in shape”. But my “back in shape” mindset was looking like I was 25 again. You put it in perspective for me. That Ah Ha moment that I need to adjust what is my “new normal” and leave the old normal behind. Many Thanks

  • itasara
    6 years ago

    I was never too good at piano but enjoyed it and recently having not played in a long time sat down to play, and it was difficult. I did get a nursing degree in college when I was younger but spend most of my years having and raising our family. I always felt I should have gone into music. I have studied voice privately for many years, still do, and have a small cantorial soloist job, and singing too is becoming harder. I don’t know if it is the MS or just that I am over 60, but I push myself to do it and the recital I was in last week was better than I thought it would be. So exercizing was never my “thing”- -ever– even in elementary school. I was not diagnosed tip the age 57 and had no specific symptoms til then, but now I wonder if there was an underlying reason I did not care for most physical activity a good part of my life. There was a period of time while my children were younger and in school that I became an exercize freak: jogging, exercize classes, swimming, ballet classes, weight room, biking, treadmill etc.I did all this regularly for about 9 or 10 years. Then my first computer came into our lives, my children were in school all day and I decided I’d rather exercize my fingers on the computer keyboard where I have been since. So some 25 years later I’m definitely out of shape. I know I should exercise, I’m not motivated to do so. I give you so much credit, Stephanie for your enthusiasm and optimism. I’m thinking maybe of joining the “silver shoes” benefit of my medicare policy, and maybe I’ll get back into more activity. It will be a real push, but my hubby who always was an athlete feels like he is not doing enough so if he joins, I’ll give it a try.

  • north-star
    6 years ago

    Great blog entry. It’s so easy to think I’ll do it mañana, I know this too well. I love the tip about exercising in front of a mirror to know where feet are. I’ll try it … today!

  • Brenda
    6 years ago

    I know personally that exercise is the answer to a lot of our fears and it is so necessary to do exercise to help us along our path of accepting what we have and go on with our lives as best we can. I have been exercising for 35 years and have MS for 29 of them. Because I enjoy exercising so much, I became a certified personal trainer to teach people how to do it right and not harm themselves in the process. I have been doing cardio exercise and weight training and feel so good. All of us have different stories to tell and hills to climb, but exercise can really give you energy and make you feel good about yourself, even if it means doing whatever stretching that one can do. Any movement is better than nothing and you will love yourself for it! 🙂

  • Kim Dolce moderator
    6 years ago

    Stephanie, thanks for another inspiring essay. Exercise is a tough one for me, I’ve been bucking it ever since I stopped PT a few years ago. But I’m alarmed at how the muscle tone in my legs has disappeared and how menopause is turning my mid-regions into a fat farm for estrogen storage.

    Aqua therapy worked great for me and that’s what I should go back to. If only procrastination could be a calorie burner and muscle conditioner, I’d be in excellent shape right now.


  • Lowdramamama
    6 years ago

    Kim – I can SO relate to your post! I am just sitting around turning to MUSH! And I know that includes my lesion rattled brain. I do have SPMS – but CAN still walk – although for limited, very limited distances.
    Living with lethargy, depression, procrastination AND zero motivation to do ANYTHING…has got me thinking, “Hmmm, at the age of 54 — where am I purposely headed?”
    So a BIG THANK YOU FOR THIS POST! I’ve got a recumbent exercise bike next to my bed, a swimming pool in the backyard, a couple of DVD’s for MS…and the sudden realization that EVEN IF I DIDN’T HAVE MS – my future prognosis for health is not good. So blessed to have read this today! 🙂

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