Less than a year ago, I wrote about how I had become a “gym person,” waking up at obscenely early hours to get my workouts in every day. But I neglected to pen the follow-up post detailing how I later opted out of gym-person-card-carrying status, probably because I felt somewhat less proud of my slide back into middle-aged, chair-bound sessility. But there you have it – after about 6 months of previously unparalleled commitment to working myself into top-flight shape, I reverted back to the more gelatinous form of humanity depicted in WALL-E.
The transition to endormorph began when I started experiencing persistent pain in my Achilles tendon shortly after I would start running. I went from running 3-4 days a week to having difficulty walking because of stiffness and pain in my tendon. Since I stubbornly refused to engage in any other form of cardio, that left me with nothing to do at the gym except lift weights. While staring at myself in a mirror for an hour a day (surprisingly) didn’t make me nauseous, I found my tendency to want to wear tighter tee shirts profoundly disturbing. While I can’t clinically prove it, I’m reasonably certain that my IQ dropped by a solid 10-15 points for every pound of muscle mass I gained. Intent on preserving my mental acuity – and, perhaps not coincidentally, bored out of my ever-loving skull – I soon let the weight sessions fall by the wayside as well. Before I knew it, I was catching an extra hour of sleep every day and not missing the gym at all.
By last October, I was perfecting my 12-hour consecutive sitting technique while rediscovering my love of ice cream with willfully reckless abandon. I blame that on Caroline. It has always been “our thing” to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie together. In order to maintain those strong father-daughter bonds, I made sure those pints found their way into our freezer with increasing regularity. After all, they seemed to have no effect on Caroline, though that could have something to do with her thrice weekly workouts of 3 hours each at the local gymnastics center. But hey, I was at the same gym with her a few times a week (albeit in a chair, watching her practice), so I figured what works for her would work for me.
My descent towards total physical dissolution continued through the winter. My only exercise from December through February consisted of shoveling snow. I didn’t take Cara’s regular warnings that “people die all the time shoveling snow” as a positive referendum on my overall physical condition. The requisite upsizing of clothes followed soon thereafter.
And then, as I wrote about in my last post, my friend Phil died of a stroke.
* * *
When I first became an amputee, Phil taught me that I needed to train like an athlete – intensively and regularly. This wasn’t so I could try to qualify for Nationals and compete in the Paralympics; it was so I could merely live an average life, doing things like walking from a parking garage to the Brooklyn County Courthouse or across a soccer field to watch my kids play youth sports.
One of the unanticipated results of Phil’s passing is that it allowed me to reconnect with an old mutual acquaintance of ours. This friend – Dave – is a PT who has spent a good portion of his professional life donating time free of charge to amputees ranging from first-time walkers to Paralympians. We sat over dinner last week, reminiscing about Phil and talking about amputee rehabilitation, fitness and prosthetic components. Finally, he looked at me and asked, “So, what are you doing now for exercise?” I said, “You’re pretty much looking at it,” and gave him my recent fitness history, starting from the high point last year when I was running regularly and lifting weights at the gym up until the present.
“How’s your back?”
“Not great,” I replied.
“What are you doing for it?”
“What am I doing for it …” I repeated, gazing into the distance before locking my eyes back on Dave. “What I’m doing is experiencing regular back spasms whenever I try to get out of my car or a chair. I wait for them to pass, trapped in anywhere from 3-5 seconds of agonizing pain, bent over, before I can straighten my spine. That’s what I’m doing for it,” I finished triumphantly, a cynical smile on my face.
Dave laughed but immediately turned serious and poked my chest: “You’ve got to take care of yourself,” he said. “If you’re like this today, what do you think it’s going to be like at 60 or 65? If you want to be moving then, you’ve got to deal with it now,” and he reminded me about the need to train like an athlete, just as Phil had told me when I first became an amputee.
By the end of our meal, Dave had volunteered to help oversee my return to a more active life. It started on Saturday with the purchase of a new pair of gel-soled Asics (“It’s all about protecting your sound side!”). I perform mandated crunches, back bridges and planks (“You have to have a strong core.”). I stretch my hamstrings and quad (singular) several times a day. I go on a mile-long walk every other day with a target of getting my heart rate up to a specific range (“No running till you’ve gotten your weight to 175!”). And on off-days it’s resistance bands for strength and flexibility.
Most interesting, Dave wants to make sure that I don’t overtrain: the goal is to get maximum value out of limited exercise time with a long-term view towards making sure that what I’m doing today to get in shape doesn’t destroy my knee, hips or spine by the time I’m in my 60’s. (It’s the less is more (!) approach to fitness.) As I text updates to Dave every day so that he knows I’m complying with his instructions, I’m reminded just how hard – perhaps impossible – it is to walk this one-legged path alone. And I find that comforting. Once again, my prosthesis has (re)connected me to someone. And that reminds me of how many important, amazing people I’ve met because I wear a prosthesis, not despite it.