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