"Your pain might come back if you _______."
When I suffered from unrelenting pelvic pain, I was often told by providers that I’d never ride a bike again. Even if my pain became manageable, they’d remind me that it might come back if I get on a bike. I shouldn't risk it. And, it wasn’t just bikes: it seemed that they were continuously warning me to tread lightly through life. At the time, these conversations were purely hypothetical, too; I was in too much pain to engage in any fun, rambunctious, potentially-injurious activities. But, I made a mental note of their advice and vowed to steer clear of potential pelvic landmines in the future.
Thank goodness that the physical therapist who ultimately helped me recover adopted none of these narrow ideas. Instead, she had a much crazier plan: she was going to help me get so healthy that I would be able to do whatever I damn well pleased. “Will I ride a bike again?,” I asked her. Her response: “If you want to.” She answered in the same manner when I asked about sex and pants and pregnancy. (I've since learned that I'm quite fond of the first two and quite interested in avoiding the third.)
Enter the 2017 Fit Squad Challenge
Fast-forward nearly three years. I’m healthy and independent now (although, just as any active person should, I still visit my PT when needed to improve my functioning). A yoga and barre studio near my house was offering a Fit Squad Challenge. Essentially, it entailed taking 5 classes per week, to include 2 high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes, 2 toning classes, and 1 stretch class. The challenge lasted 5 weeks, and I received a bingo card to mark off my classes.
Nine weeks ago, I signed up and began the challenge. It was mentally and physically difficult. Trusting my body to be resilient, understanding that soreness doesn’t signal danger, and trying many new exercises for the very first time was really hard. For me, I think the mental part was harder than the physical aspect of it. I love using my body now that I’m healthy, but I still get scared sometimes, and it makes my hyper-aware of every little twinge or tweak or glitch deep within my muscles. In those situations, where I hold a pose a little too long or stretch a little too deep, I mentally shake off the old providers’ voices in my head rattling off all of the things I shouldn’t do, and I reengage with the activity.
Those voices do still resonate sometimes, even though my physical therapist’s voice sounds the loudest. Her “You CAN do this.” mantra is so much brighter and more hopeful than their doom-and-gloom “Pain is looming, so be careful.” messages. But after suffering for so many years, I’d be lying if I said that those scary messages don’t still haunt me. However, in spite of that, I successfully completed the Fit Squad Challenge 4 weeks ago…. And I’ve kept it up!
The day that I checked off my final class, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. I truly felt more proud of that completed Fit Squad bingo card than I have when receiving some of my educational degrees. It marked a completely new chapter of health and vibrance in my life, and it was a tangible indicator of all that I can do.
The biggest surprise? I like being active.
The challenge has become a way of life for me. Through this experience, I’ve become who I wanted to be: a healthy, active, engaged young woman. I’ve been astounded by my body’s strength (and humbled by gravity a few times too). I’ve received encouragement from the community of my supportive studio, and I’ve seen real change in my strength, sleep, and energy levels.
So, if you’ve been told that there are things you can’t do because of your pain, I encourage you to challenge those beliefs. Your providers are there to help you reach your goals. Don’t let them do that by altering your goals and lowering your standards for the active life you want. If you want to ride a bike again, I promise there’s a provider out there who’s at least willing to try to help you accomplish that goal.
For me, this experience was a keen reminder that much of the challenge is in my mind. Half the battle is always getting to the gym, and then I try to check my inhibitions and fears at the door. On my mat, I’m safe, so long as I listen to my body (NOT to those naysayer providers!). Exercise feels good, it’s empowering, and it’s taught me to be in-tune with my strengths in a way I didn’t realize possible. I’ve formed friendships, gained confidence, and found community. And, had I listened to those providers who long ago told me I should live more gently, I would’ve missed out on the entire experience.
Providers, if you’re reading: Help your patients accomplish their goals. And never, ever tell them that they won’t or shouldn’t ever again engage in an activity that makes them happy. Encourage them, support them, and find things that they can do. Empower them to strive for higher goals and support them in reaching for those goals, which includes providing support when they have setbacks. There’s nothing worse than a provider who tells a patient how much their future will be limited because of their health condition. It feels hopeless and indescribably frustrating, and it severely undermines patients’ motivations to recover. Be upbeat and optimistic about their future – they need to learn to trust their bodies again, and that means believing that you have faith in their ability to recover.