Exercise and keeping your body moving can help counter the effects of Multiple Sclerosis, increase energy and balance, ease symptoms and even help with cognitive issues. I think we can all agree that this is known and accepted information? No false news in that assertion. Just truth. But…the truth is, knowing that exercise can help, and actually exercising are two completely different things for many living with a chronic disease. As someone that grew up exercising, that was in the “best shape of my life” when diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, that loves exercising, and yet has found myself out of shape and overweight thanks to MS and its curveballs, I know about wanting to exercise but just not being able to do it. To not be able to get over the hurdles and create new habits.
Exercise and activity have always been a part of my life. From early morning swim team practices at the age of six, to hours at the rink striving to be a little star figure skater, to my years of playing soccer, I was always doing something as a child. Having grown up in a household where my mother left for her morning run just as the kids were rising for the day and a dad who played tennis multiple times a week, it was a natural transition that I would continue to incorporate exercise into my life as I grew up and became an adult.
I arrived in Seattle and fell in love with the outdoor lifestyle that is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t until my first pregnancy that I joined a gym and started exercising inside. Although I continued to “run” (aka WADDLE) into my seventh month of that first pregnancy, a misty evening and a moss covered sidewalk on the hill next to our house led to a fall that made me decide that running on a treadmill might be a good idea, at least until I popped the baby out.
In the last month or two of the pregnancy, I rediscovered my love of swimming and with my doctor’s “permission” I was back in the pool a week after Sam arrived. Although I did return to running the streets of Seattle, newly armed with a baby jogger and my new “bundle of joy,”, I became a regular at my local YMCA. Sometimes taking Sam at nap time, he would sleep soundly at the edge of the pool, where I could peek at him from time to time as I swam lap after lap. Other days the Seattle rain would dictate that I hit the elliptical trainer with Sam strapped in the backpack securely fastened to my shoulders.
Two more kids meant getting a bit more creative in my exercising, but nothing that a double baby jogger and the aforementioned baby backpack couldn’t handle. I spent hours and hours running and walking the hills of our Seattle neighborhood, often heading out early in the morning with diapers, snacks and toys to last the day. Between the babbling baby strapped to my back, the two toddlers in the stroller munching on snacks and listening to books on tape on their Walkmans (yes, I am dating myself:) and the two large dogs in tow, we were quite the sight!
But I still hit the gym fairly regularly, and somewhere along the years, I began to do more strength and core training. Slowly at first, just a few reps with the smaller dumbbells and some resistance band work, nothing huge. But it was my first steps into really focusing on my physical fitness and strength. As I worked my way to being in the best shape of my life, my body decided to start having issues with “remembering what the fuck to do” and my life took an unexpected turn. I was diagnosed with MS and as I struggled to accept no longer being able to run, and the need to use a cane to walk to the end of the block, the strength and muscle memory that I had worked hard to develop kicked in and helped me battle the effects of the disease. All those years of running the hills of Seattle left me with strong legs and core, both of which helped me with my balance and walking. I figured that even if they had gone to shit, I was still moving and that was the first step to winning! I continued to hit the gym and soon added working with a personal trainer to my routine.
I now had a purpose behind my workouts, to stay strong against MS. Back then I wrote in my journal “I don’t work out to be a skinny ass bitch, I work out to be a strong ass warrior.” That was my drive. Each day, when I would work out I would think of my MS and how different my body seemed even after such a short period of time, and it would drive me to stay a little longer, lift a little more, go a little farther. I was going to be the winner in this battle!
Then life took another turn, and as my marriage was ending, I used my workouts to deal with the anger, sadness, and frustration that seemed all consuming. When I felt completely overwhelmed and certain that I would never make it through all the shit that comes with a divorce, going to the gym was my release. I swam away the fears I had of being a single mom. I hit the treadmill to try and forget the disappointment I felt that my marriage had failed. I lifted weights to make the constant panic of finding a job fade just a little bit. I put in miles and miles, laps and laps and lifted lots of heavy things. It was my therapy.
After my divorce, I returned to work, full-time. Between work, school and sports schedules, playing taxi driver and taking care of my new house, time and energy for gym visits dwindled. I hated it. I missed my daily sweat sessions, missed the ache of muscles that have been worked hard and need to rest. Instead, those familiar aches and pains were slowly replaced by a new voice, the screaming voice of chronic pain. Pain that began to take over my body and then my life in its relentless attack on my nervous system and my mind.
I have talked recently about my chronic pain, and that it had taken over my life in the past few years. I would be an idiot to not see a correlation between the pain and my physical fitness and activity level. The less exercise I got, the worse the pain got. The weaker my body became, the more the pain took over. Medications prescribed by my doctor for the pain had side-effects like constipation and weight gain and I found myself unable to recognize (or like) the body that I was living in. Which just led to depression, which was just another obstacle standing in the way of trying to get back to the gym and in shape.
I tried to drag that body to the gym. I tried to lose myself in the workout like I used to, but I couldn’t get past the pain. It would hurt before I got there, increase ten-fold while working out and then be off the charts for the rest of the day. In the past, I didn’t have much pain from day to day. The pain only arrived when I was working out, which might be seen as a hindrance, but for me, was just more motivation to push on and through. Back then, the exercising brought on the pain that hadn’t been there before getting to the gym, but it would subside and go away as my body cooled down and I rested a bit. I would then be filled with energy and feel strong and powerful and ready to take on whatever MS decided to throw my way. But once the pain had taken-over, going to the gym in pain knowing that the workout would make it worse and it would stay worse for the rest of the day made it nearly impossible to get excited about exercise.
Now that I have begun finding relief from the pain with cannabis and I have begun to live outside the bubble, I began to go to the “Y” again, eager to regain my strength, lose the medication weight and feel like myself again. But it hasn’t been the same. I haven’t felt the buzz and energy that I used to always get from a good workout. Physically I have been gaining strength (and losing weight) but my return to the “gym life” hasn’t been what I hoped it would be. Although I am now waking up each morning eager and excited to move my body, to get exercise and stretch and use my muscles again, the gym doesn’t seem to be calling me.
Then the other day, Shawn and I went on a hike, on the trails by our house, something I haven’t able to do over the past few years. As I made my way up some fairly steep and winding spots and I listened to the sound of the waterfall, I realized why working out at the gym hasn’t felt right. When I am at the gym, using the machines and equipment that seem like old friends I am remembering all the things that I was thinking and feeling when I last spent time with them. For over four years, my daily gym visits were my therapy, the way I dealt with the stress of ending a marriage and trying to start a new life. Returning to the gym and seeing familiar faces from the past dredges up old memories and emotions, and not ones that are really worth revisiting. Irrelevant of getting a good workout and feeling pride in being there again I walk out feeling I have been bombarded by negative energy and that isn’t what I am looking for these days!
One of the things that I have learned is that to make a change, you have to do something different. You have to change something in order for a change to happen. If you keep everything the same, everything will remain the same.
So I am going to change it up a bit and stop trying to force the gym on myself. I was super proud of myself on our hike (as in the “Shawn, look at me, look at me” type of pride) and realized just how much I love being outside and walking on the trails. All in all, we walked for just under two hours and I felt good, and strong, and happy. I pulled my weights, bands and yoga mat out onto the back deck this morning and stretched and did strength training for about an hour, and as soon as I finish this post off, I’m heading back to the trails. As I work my way up and down the hills, managing my footing between the rocks and the tree roots I will be thinking about how thankful I am to be outside, once again able take my dogs for a walk. But more importantly, I will be appreciating all that has been returned to my life since starting to use cannabis and finding relief from the pain.
It is like I have been balled up in a cocoon and I am now finally breaking out of it and stretching and remembering what it feels like to move….without the pain.
**This is my personal blog and all opinions are my own. I am not a doctor, nor do I play one here on my blog. The content here is for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of medical professionals. Be sure to contact your doctor before trying any new medications/vitamins/supplements, physical activities or therapies **