Full-range motion… in slow motion

I’ve been changing up my morning exercise routine, over the past week, after realizing that the exercises I’ve been doing have not been strenghtening my whole system. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been doing “weight lifting” exercises, which isolate certain muscles. That’s how I was taught to lift, both when I was an active athlete and later in life when I hit the gym regularly.

In the process of isolating muscles, however, I’ve realized that I’ve produced a kind of “lop-sided” fitness which actually undermines my whole structure. If a handful of muscles are stronger than others, and they don’t have strength through their full range of motion, it actually makes it easier for me to injure myself and be in more pain. Because the stronger muscles will be taking over and pulling more weight, while the less strong ones — including my tendons and ligaments — will be unevenly stressed.

Not good.

Also, I’ve noticed that the weights I’ve been using, while not terribly heavy, have actually been stressing my joints. Part of the problem is form. I have a tendency to stoop, which is not good. I need to keep mindful of my alignment. But the thing that comes to mind — in no small part as a result of reading crossfit information which talks about how life is not a controlled situation, and you can never tell just how you’re going to be physically tested in life — is that doing simple movements with light weights should NOT be painful and stressful to me.

Something is lacking, here, and that is full-range fitness.

So, I’m expanding my exercises to incorporate full-range motion. Not just curls, but curls and stretches. Not just presses, but extensions, too. I have stopped limiting my movement to “the exercise” itself, and I’m completing the motion that I begin, to come full-circle.

It’s hard to explain in words, but basically, if I hold weights and stretch out my arms in one direction, I complete the full range of motion to bring the weight back – under very conscious control.

Instead of doing linear exercises:

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I’m doing full-spectrum exercises

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Another aspect of this, is that I move much more slowly than I am accustomed to. Slow movement has always made me NUTS — I can’t stand it! But you know what? I need the practice at impulse control. And I need the practice at mindfulness. I also need to build some really quality muscle, to support my joints. That is done quite well by slow lifting. Also, slow lifting cuts down on wear and tear on your joints. Between the mindfulness and the measured motion, by the time I’m done with my workout in the morning, I’ve gotten some good practice at paying very close attention to what I’m doing. And that sets the stage for the rest of my day.

This is a new thing for me, but it’s long overdue. And it not only represents a shift in my workout, but a shift in my approach to life, as well. Whatever I start, I complete. I don’t just go in one direction, I complete the circle. I also move much more slowly than before, where I can feel every motion, and I am mindful of every movement. It’s not just a change to my exercise routine. It’s actually a change to my way of relating to the rest of my life.

Speaking of the rest of my life, I’ve gotta run – I’ve got full-range activities to attend to.

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As goes my workout, so goes my day

I’ve noticed something, recently, about the past several months of my life. For some reason, I tend to “get lost” in the course of my days. I start out knowing what I want to accomplish, and I get off to a good start. But then I get to the late morning/early afternoon, and I start to unravel. I lose my train of thought. I get distracted. I wander off — mentally and sometimes physically — and don’t stay focused on my work.

And my work product suffers.

After a number of months of doing this new job, I am realizing that I’m just not moving quickly enough on the tasks I have on my plate. And people are getting pissed off at me. Rightfully so. I’m overpromising and under-delivering. That’s never a good thing.

What to do? I’ve been taking the psychological approach, trying to figure out what goes on in my head that causes me to do the things I do… and not do the things I’m supposed to. I’ve always been keenly interested in searching for meaning… philosophical and all that. And I’ve had it in my head that if I can just figure out the motivation and underlying psychological reasons for why I do what I do, I can turn it all around.

Well… That works for me up to a certain point, but I still notice that even if I do understand the nature of my problems, that doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do anything about them. I have done a lot of really great work with my neuropsych around getting myself more functional and more engaged in my life. They’ve helped me tremendously. And I’ve had some real breakthroughs with regard to understanding myself better and not selling myself so short all the time.

I’ve come a really long way, in just a few years.

But there’s another piece of this puzzle that has been fitting into the picture behind the scenes. It’s a piece that I haven’t discussed at great length with my neuropsych, because it’s just something I do on a regular basis. It’s now part of my daily routine, and it is as essential and as habitual for me as eating my bowl of healthy cereal with rice milk along with my 1 cup of morning coffee.

That piece is my morning workout. Of all the things that have helped me overcome the cognitive/behavioral effects of TBI, I have to say that exercise is probably one of the most essential ones. Without it — without engaging the body and treating it well — all the psychological knowledge and remediation in the world is literally for naught.

I know this from many years’ experience, tho’ I’ve had to relearn it over the past six months. When I was a kid, I had tremendous difficulties in many areas. Socially, I was clumsy — I either talked too much or not at all, and when I got going, I couldn’t stop. I had issues with confabulation, to the point where most folks thought I was a pathological liar (as I was blithely believing/insisting that I knew what I was talking about!). I was aggressive with some, overly passive with others, and I had a lot of pain issues that kept me from having a lot of physical contact with others. I had trouble looking folks in the eye, and if it weren’t for the parallel imaginary world I created for myself (and participated in, when I was all alone in the woods), I wouldn’t have had any semblance of normal interactions with others — real or imagined — at all.

Then I started to grow up — physically leaping ahead of my peers (endocrine issues from multiple TBIs, perhaps? who knows), and I started to play sports in high school. The regular workouts were very, very good for me. And the structure of the team play probably did more to teach me to interact with others, than any amount of therapy could. My coaches trained me to persevere, to look them in the eye when I talked to them, and to be smart about my races and my events.  They never treated me like I was defective — they treated me like an athlete-in-training, which I was. And when I fell short and didn’t perform up to my level, they walked me through the game/race/event, and taught me to think through what I could do differently to perform better next time — because they were always certain I could do better next time.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of sports in my “rehabilitation” during high school. Of course, it didn’t help that I had a couple of concussions while playing football and soccer, but what long-term benefit I gained from sports has helped me deal with the long-term effects of my history of head trauma.

But most of all — even more than the life skills and attitude adjustments — the purely physical aspects of sport had an amazing effect on me and my function. When I was engaged in team sports, regularly active and challenged physically, I felt so much more… like myself. I had a center. I had a sense of who I was and what was important to me. Practicing and competing and training all kept me fit and oxygenated, and they kept my energy from getting too crazy. The physical exercise actually gave my constant restlessness something to do with itself. In fact, if anything, that constant restlessness (that comes so often with TBI) was an asset, when it came to sports. It kept me going — provided I had something to do with it… as in, exercise.

After years and years of not being engaged in athletic activities, I’m once again back at it. Each day, first thing in the morning — usually before I do anything else — I ride my exercise bike, then stretch, then lift light weights. I also feed the cat and plan my day and boil water for my coffee in the meantime. All told, the routine I follow takes 45-60 minutes of each morning.

Now, I used to balk at the idea of even spending 15 minutes stretching, before I got on with my day. As far as I was concerned, that was too much time to spend. I didn’t have that kind of time to spend on riding the friggin’ exercise bike! I told myself. I need to do something really useful with my time!

Well, as I soon found out, exercising turned out to be the MOST useful use of my time I could imagine. Not only did it actually wake me up — which was something I could never, ever do on my own before… I would pretty  much be sleepwalking till 11 a.m. or so.  But it also really chilled out my whole system for the rest of the day.

Suddenly, I could function like a regular human being. I wasn’t a raging maniac at the end of each day. I could hold civil conversations with my spouse.  I could focus my attention on what they were telling me. And if I started to get lost, all of a sudden, I had the presence of mind to write down my questions and make notes about what they were telling me. And when they were doing things that were jeopardizing our relationship (like hanging around with another disgruntled married person who was into “extra-curricular” activities), I could sit them down and explain to them why doing this was a detriment to our marriage, and they really needed to rethink their relationship with this person, if they wanted our relationship to continue. I was also able to get my head around what I’d been doing to push my spouse away from me, and understand what it was I needed to do to change the course of my behavior.

A year ago, that would have been next to impossible. Even six months ago, it would have been a huge stretch. Because I was out of shape, I was foggy and fuzzy and dull, and there probably wasn’t nearly enough oxygen getting through my system on a regular basis.

I think it’s safe to say that regular exercise has turned my life around. Not the three-times-a-week trip to the gym, but daily, regular, regimented exercise, which is specifically geared to waking me up and getting my body engaged in interacting with the world. As a direct result of working out each morning, I’ve been able to keep relatively afloat at work, as well as chill things out at home. Even more importantly, when things have gotten very tight and tough — particularly with money and uncertainty about the future — being physically well has enabled me to keep a level head. It’s strengthened me in more than just physical ways.

Okay, now that I’ve established that exercise has changed my life for the better, and I’ve gotten into a routine, it’s time for me to change things up a little more. I need to change my exercise for the better. I’ve been noticing that the kind of workout I have in the morning is a pretty good predictor for what kind of day I’m going to have. Thinking back, I can see how I’ve spent a lot of time just going through the motions of working out. I haven’t really pushed myself, I haven’t really paced myself. I have my 20 minutes of pedaling at a so-so rate… then I stretch a bit… then I do my rounds of light weights in the same order every day.

I lift in the same order every day, because that’s the only way I could remember what order to go in, before. I lifted 10 reps of 5 lb weights in alternating directions to strengthen opposing muscles. Bicep curls I followed with triceps extensions. Lifting forward was always followed by lifting backwards. I did really well at balancing it all out. And eventually I got to a place where I could remember the sequence of exercises without looking at my daily exercise sheet. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. Six months ago, I was struggling to remember what exercise I’d done only five minutes before, I and I was dependent on writing everything down. Now, I can go through the whole sequence and remember what I’ve done, so far. I can even stray from the strict routine and have all my exercises accomplished.

Wow. It sounds small and a little dimwittted, but that’s huge for me.

I can remember my morning exercise routine without props. Wow.

Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed is that now that I can remember my routine, I have a tendency to slack off. Go through the motions. Not give it all I’ve got. And it’s time to change it up. Because the days that I really skimp on my workout, are the days that just kind of lollygag along in this sort of blah sequence of what-ever events. I don’t have that spark I need. I don’t have that fire. I don’t have focus and determination. I’m just kind of there. Sure, I’m functional — a sight more functional than I was before — but I’m not really with it the way I’d like to be. I’d like to be more. I’d like to do more. I’d like to be able to go through my day with intention and determination and a sense of accomplishment… not just gratitude that “whew – I made it.”

I’m really feeling badly about my performance at work, actually. I want to do better. I need to do better. And I need to change how I do things. I am in a different kind of job than I have been in, for the past 15 years. There’s more responsibility and more serious thought and planning required, than I’ve ever had to do. There’s more potential for advancement, and more potential to screw up. And because it’s a higher-intensity job, I need to change my approach not only to my work, but also to my workouts. And my day.

And I have to do it in a way that works for me. I have attentional issues. I also have fatigue issues. Things that others find common-sense and workable do not work for me. The whole patiently working through one little step after another… making gradual progress… being steady and careful in a carefully modulated, time-and-energy-budgeted fashion… well, that just doesn’t work for me.

I can’t do the long-slow-march-to-the-ultimate-goal, like others promote. I can’t do the tortoise thing. I know that hares are looked down upon, and that fast-and-furious approaches are poo-poohed by many. But I have tried doing the tortoise thing, and as much as I’d like to make it work, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get too tired. I lose my place. I get disoriented and frustrated and stuck in a cycle of diminishing returns. I need something different. A different pace. Not a 10-mile run, but a series of sprints that are interspersed with ample rest and recuperation.

I need something more like a crossfit approach — high-intensity interval training that:

  • gets my full attention for a set amount of time
  • demands everything I have to give for that set amount of time
  • lets me see that I’ve accomplished something in that burst of intense energy
  • gives me time to take a break, look closely at what I’ve done, gather my strength back, and then fly at what’s next with all my might

This approach may seem extreme to some, but it’s actually a lot more useful to me, than the long, slow, plodding approach. Long, slow plodding puts a huge stress on me, and the repetitive nature of it, as well as the moderate pace, wears away at me. I have attentional issues. I need to be intently and fully focused on what is in front of me. I need to bring all my resources to bear on small pieces of effort… not pace myself over a long haul. The long haul just wears me out. It’s that friggin’ fatigue thing.

So, it’s time for me to get moving. First, I’ve got to get my shower — and I have a timer I use to make sure I don’t spend more than 10 minutes under the water, enticing as that can be. Then I’m off to the chiropractor to treat my central nervous system. Then I’ve got some errands to run, some chores to do… and then it’s time for my nap. I’m getting better at not loading up too much stuff to do, each day. I have fewer things, but I do more. I’m still working on being able to feel good about getting less than 20 things accomplished in a day, but I’m getting there.

I had a good workout this morning — I did intervals on the bike, and I did slow, full-range movement with my weights which really tested me at times. I have dispensed with the isolated exercises — they’re actually hurting my joints — and I’m doing full-range, real-life motions instead, to strengthen my body for what it really does, each day.

This is a good change. It feels strange and disorienting, but it makes total sense for me. And it’s good. Onward.

I haven’t got time for the pain

I haven’t got need for the pain, either.

I confirmed something very important, this past week – if I do not exercise vigorously, first thing in the morning before I do anything else, I pay for it in pain.

For those who know what it is like to battle chronic pain on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis, over the course of months, even years, you know what I mean, when I say, I will do anything in my power to keep this pain from taking over my life.

For those who are lucky enough to not have that experience, you can say instead, I will do anything in my power to keep [insert something you detest and despise] from taking over my life.

I happen to be one of the former types, plagued all my born days (at least, as far back as I can remember) with pain. Painful touch. Painful movement. Painful just about everything. The only times I have been pain-free have been in the extremes of human experience — when I am either so deeply engrossed in what I am doing that my focus blocks out any sensation at all… when I am pushing myself beyond my limits to see how far I can go… when I am so deeply relaxed and entranced that nothing of human experience can penetrate the divine aura that surrounds me.

In those extreme places, I am free of pain, I am more than myself, I am a piece of a very, very, very large puzzle that dwarfs discomfort with its vastness.

But one cannot always live in the extremes. I’m neither a cloistered monastic, nor a sheltered academic, nor a professional athlete, nor a maverick rock climber. I am a regular person with a regular life, and that life just happens to be fraught — at times — with almost constant pain.

Ask me if I have a headache on any given day, and my answer will not be “yes” or “no”, but “what kind of headache?” and “where precisely do you mean?” It’s a given, that my  head will hurt. And my body, too. It’s just a question of degrees.

At its worst, the pain is debilitating. 20 years ago, I had to stop working and drop out of life for about 5 years to get myself back on my feet. Over the decades since then, the pain has fluctuated, its impact on my life varying. The variation has been due, in no small part, to my mental determination to not let it stop me. In many cases, I refused to even acknowledge it, even though objectively I knew it was there. I went for years telling myself  I was pain-free, while at night I would be forced to stretch and press points up and down my legs and take plenty of Advil to get myself past the searing ache in my legs, hips, and back.

Denial is a funny thing — so useful, so essential, at times, and so easily used, even when facts to the contrary are obvious and intrusive.

Over the past several years, however, as I’ve become more and more cognizant of my TBI-related issues, pain has made itself known to me, and I have ceased to deny it. It’s a double-edged sword, that. Even if I don’t deny it and am determined to do something about it, my plans don’t always work, and I cannot always accomplish the level of pain control I would like.

In those moments when my honesty is far more than my ability to deal effectively with my discomfort, I curse my newfound determination to be upfront and frank about every little thing that is amiss with me. I have so many other issues to think about — do I need to add unstoppable, unmanageable, uncontrollable pain to the mix? Wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense, to acknowledge and focus on issues I can actually fix?

But now that the lid is off Pandora’s box, there’s no sticking it back on. I have to address this pain situation, I have to do something about it. I cannot just sit around and boo-hoo. Nor can I run away from it and keep telling myself it’s not an issue. It is an issue. A very sticky, troubling, problematic one that holds me back, perhaps more than any other issue I have. It’s not just physical, it’s emotional and psychological, too. And it demands acknowledgement and work, to address it.

So, I do. I get up in the morning — like it or not — and I exercise. I roll my aching, complaining body out of bed, pull on my sweatshirt over my pajamas, slip my feet into my slippers, grab my clipboard and pen, and I haul my ass downstairs. I fill the kettle with water, put it on the stove, and turn the knob to 3 or 4, to give myself plenty of time to work out before the water boils. Then I pull the curtains in the room where the exercise bike is, so I can work out in private, put my clipboard on the magazine holder on the exercise bike, climb on, make a note of the time I started, and I begin to pedal.

I ride for at least 20 minutes — 15, if I’m really behind in my schedule — and I work up a sweat. I hate and resent the first 10 minues of every ride. It is boring. It is monotonous. It is sheer drudgery. But it is necessary. If I don’t exercise, move lymph through my veins (the milky white substance that moves toxins out of our systems doesn’t move on its own — it requires circulation to clear out the junk we put in), and oxygenate my brain.

After the first 10 minutes, my brain has started to wake up and is complaining less about the ride. About that time, I start to think of things I’m going to do for the day, and I start to make notes. I scribble on my clipboard, trying to control my handwriting well enough to read my notes later, and I make an effort to be careful and legible. On and off, I pick up my pace and push myself, working up a sweat and an oxygen debt that gets my lungs pumping. When I’m warmed up and getting into a groove, my mind wakes up even more, and I let it wander a bit — kind of like letting a squirrelly puppy off its lead when you take it for a walk in the park. I let my thoughts ramble, let my mind race here and there, and then like walking a puppy, I eventually call it back, focus once more on my day, and make more notes about what I need to accomplish.

When I’ve reached my 20-30 minute mark, I stop pedaling, get off the bike, and go check on my hot water. I turn up the heat, if it’s not already boiling, and stretch in the kitchen while the kettle starts to rumble. When the whistle goes, I make myself a cup of strong coffee, and while it’s cooling, I stretch some more. I drink a big glass of water as I stretch, feeling the muscles and tendons and fascia giving way to my insistence. I’m warmed up, after pedaling, so I can stretch more easily. I can move a lot better than when I got out of bed, and I’m actually starting to feel pretty good about doing this exercise thing, as soon as I get up.

Once I’ve stretched, I head back to the exercise room and lift my dumbbells. I work with 5 pound weights (for now), moving slowly and deliberately. I focus intently on my form — practicing my impulse control. I make sure my body is aligned properly and my motions are smooth and not stressing my joints and ligaments and tendons. There’s no point in exercising if I’m going to just injure myself. I do a full range of upper-body exercises, presses, curls, flys, extensions, pull-ups… all the different ways I can move my arms with my 5-lb dumbbells, I work into the third part of my routine. I take my time — deliberately, for discipline and focus and impulse control are big problems for me that really get in my way — and I work up a sweat as I hold certain positions and move far more slowly than I prefer.

When all is said and done, my legs are a little wobbly and my upper body is warm with exertion. I am sweating and a little out of breath, and my body is starting to work overtime to catch up with itself again.

By the time I’m done, my coffee has cooled enough to drink it, and I can make myself a bowl of cereal and cut up an apple to eat.  I sit down with my clipboard again, make more notes, review what I need to accomplish, and I get on with my day.

The days when I skimp on the effort and take it easy, are the days when I am in the most pain at the end of the day. The days when I really push myself with my weights, moving sloooooowly through the motions and keeping myself to a strict form, are the days when I have the most energy and am feeling the most fluid. The days when I don’t stretch very much, are the days I have trouble falling asleep at night. And the days when I do stretch are the ones when I am able to just crash into bed and am down like a log all night.

Two days, this past week, I did not do my workout full justice, and I paid dearly for it, the rest of both days. I learned my lesson. I haul myself out of bed, now, and I hold myself to a disciplined workout. Anything less gets me in trouble.

I’ve got enough trouble, without the pain on top of it. And if there is any way I can cut back on whatever complications I can, I’ll do what I can to do just that.

It’s hard to start, it can be tedious to do, and it often feels like an interruption to my morning, but without it, my day is toast. And I am lost at sea… floating in a brine of burning, searing agony that surely must have informed the medieval concept of eternal hellfire and brimstone.

And yet, something so simple can push back the waves, like Moses parted the Red Sea. Something so simple, so basic, so good for me. Salvation comes in strange packages, sometimes. But it’s salvation nonetheless, so I’ll take it.

After all, I’ve got much better things to do with my life than suffer needlessly.