Archive for the ‘walking’ Category

As I write, I am several days into resuming my normal exercise routine. I’ve spent the last two weeks sidelined with a knee injury – not the first time this has happened, and probably not the last, although I hope it is. But as I shake myself clear of my Ibuprofen-induced haze, as always I am aware of an overwhelming truth:

Walking is wasted on the able-bodied.

Seriously, there is nothing like losing an ability to make you appreciate it. When you have a leg injury, your entire perspective changes. Whether you’re limping along unaided or using a cane or crutches, suddenly distances seem to increase, because you need more time to travel them. Public transit, you realize, is far less convenient than you once believed, due to the distances between stops or the need to walk up to the platform. Even going from the living room to the bed room can seem a long journey that needs to be planned; if you forget something, you are not exactly going to nip back to pick it up.

When your legs aren’t functioning properly, you feel more vulnerable, too. The vulnerability is especially strong in public, where, if you must be a cripple, you hope you can at least appear to be a sturdy one who is capable of beating wallet-snatchers off with your cane. Yet, in the safety of your home, the vulnerability is only marginally less, if, like me, you hate being dependent on someone. A few days of limping, and you can work up a fine cloud of depression at your increased helplessness.

You start to wonder if what you’re experiencing is a foretaste of old age. If so, you conclude, you are probably not strong enough to endure the experience. The line “Hope I die before I get old” becomes, not a line from the heyday of The Who, but a completely reasonable point of view.
After a few days, you have to keep reminding yourself that your condition is not permanent. A couple of weeks, and civility is stripped from you like the veneer of civilization that it is. If you can’t impress through physical activity, your hind brain insists, then you will impress through crankiness instead.

Then, just as despair threatens to win, you wake up one morning feeling strangely lightened. You are still not walking well, so you take a while to realize that the chronic pain that you’ve been living with is faded to a dull ache. Suddenly, you have something to anticipate.

A day or two later, and you are walking on your own again. You are taking short, unbalanced steps like an upright hippo probably would, but at least you are walking. Ten minutes of being upright tires you like sprinting a couple of kilometers, but at least you can do it.

When you stand, you can feel the muscles in calves and thighs shifting to propel you upright and keep your balance. From the way you hurl yourself upright, you realize that most of the effort in standing has been made recently by your arms, and that you can transfer the effort back to your legs again.

Start to walk, and you wonder how you ever took for granted the interplay of muscles that make you a bipedal ape. You can feel muscles that generally you are hardly aware of contracting and pulling against one another. The physical awareness is such a joy singing through you that it feels a like a brief return to your teens. The fact that bipedalism is the result of endless evolutionary compromises only makes it seem all the more wonderful.

Soon enough, you start to forget the marvel called walking. It becomes automatic again, and you stop thinking about it. But for the first day or two after you return to walking, you find yourself looking at all the people around you who are oblivious to this simple delight and thinking, “You ungrateful bastards. You need a week on crutches to appreciate what you have.”

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Four years ago, a doctor diagnosed me as having a mild case of osteoarthritis in my knees. I had run too many kilometers for too many years on blacktop, and now I was paying the price. My running days, he told me, were over, and the best I could do was light exercise. But trial and painful error has shown that the doctor was mostly wrong. If I was selective, I found, I could still do the kind of heavy daily exercise I’ve been accustomed to since I was eight. I simply had to make some changes in my routine.

The first change was to add some exercises to my daily routine. Half-squats, I’ve found, are ideal for building up the muscles around my knees to take some of the strain from them. I also do some stretching, one leg at a time, with a piece of surgical tubing while sitting on a bed or mat, and lie on the floor and walk an exercise ball up the wall.

For my main exercise, I’ve left the road for the gym. I now do repetitions on an exercise bike, varying the speed, tension, and duration from day to day and repetition to repetition to keep my interest up. The bike allows me a sweaty workout, but, because my weight is off my legs, pedaling puts very little pressure on my knees – in fact, even more than the exercises, it helps to reduce the aches around my knees. True, switching from running to cycling has changed the shape of my leg muscles, but that’s a small price to pay.

Recently, I’ve also added sessions on the summit climber. At first, I thought the motion would be too much like climbing stairs for me to manage, but the machine is designed to minimize pressure on the legs. If anything, the summit climber is even better than the bike for strengthening my leg muscles so I can work around my lack of meniscus. However, it is harder on the knees than the exercise bike, so I only use it in moderation.

Sometimes, too, three or four kilometers of walking is beneficial. I’ve never liked the slow pace of walking, but I can do it.

The doctor was right that I can’t sustain the sixteen kilometer runs that I used to do. I can run one without trouble, but on the second day, my knees start to give way. If I am stupid enough to persist for four or five days, my knees start to swell.

But I can manage five kilometers a day indefinitely, especially when they are added to my time on the bike and the summit climber. And, every now and then, for a change of pace when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can do ten or twelve kilometers. If my speed isn’t what it was – well, growing older was slowing me anyway.

At first, I worried that these exercises would hurry the degeneration of my knees. However, from experience, I doubt that is the case. My legs are stronger and my knees hurt less after a session on the bike, and I am now healthier and more active than I was when the doctor delivered his verdict of doom, and generally have much less discomfort in my knees, too.

Obviously, how active you can be with osteoarthritis depends on its severity. I’ve been lucky that my problems are relatively mild. But I’m convinced that the exercises I have discovered can not only help alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis, but also keep many of those with the condition far more active than they (or my former doctor) imagines. My only regret is that the doctor who diagnosed me has since moved away, so I can’t have the satisfaction of telling him that he was wrong.

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I’m lucky in my choice of exorcisms. When things get too much, other people get too drunk or turn on the people around them. But through no virtue of my own, when I get restless from too long at the computer, or overwhelmed by all that I can control or haven’t done or should have done, I get rid of the tension by violent exercise. Something about the lightheaded edge of fatigue calms the frustrations that would otherwise build up like a slow poison.

The physical aspect is one aspect of the release. When I reach the point when my lungs are burning from my effort and my legs and arms are nearly trembling, not much room is left for depression or self-pity. At that point, I’m held upright by the adrenalin and the endorphins swamping my blood. To a point, the harder I exercise, the longer I can exercise – or so it seems.

But, for me, the most important aspect is the mental. All exercise, whether inside or outside, running, cycling, swimming, or walking, consists of repetitions of a few simple actions such as the movement of the legs and arms, and the regular intake and outake of breath. These repetitions make exercise a form of meditation, a heightened state of paradoxical quiet, for all I can hear my laboring breath with my ears and feel my increased heart rate. It’s rare that I don’t come back from a run with the problem I was working on solved, or with a stoic optimism replacing my doubts and uncertainty. Exercise tells me, not that my mental state doesn’t matter, but that there are other rhythms in the world that keep me going and that are somehow enough in themselves.

For most of my adult life, my exercise of choice has been running – and I mean running, not jogging, because the pace I set myself was always a demanding one. However, in the last few years, I’ve branched out more in an effort to preserve what’s left of the battered cartilage in my knees. And, in doing so, I’ve found that each form of exercise with its characteristic set of repetitive motions is its own form of meditation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me running is a creative meditation from which I retrieve the structure of the piece of writing I’m working on, or an idea to develop. By contrast, swimming, while often leaving just as tired as any other form of exercise, has a calming effect – perhaps because even the breast-stroke that I prefer involves a deprivation of the senses. Cycling, though, is best for an all-out assault on negative emotions of all kinds (or at least the intervals I do at the exercise room are), while walking is more contemplative, and brings a deeper awareness of trees and temperature and people. But all of them leave me focused, relaxed, and renewed. The best days are usually those that involve more than one of these types of meditation, and the main advantage of holidays is that I can fit more of them in. It’s a rare day that I don’t burn over 800 extra calories, and a satisfying one when I burn more.

I suppose that the long-term fitness that my exercise regime bestows helps me deal with tension, too (I have to get something out of it; I have a heavy build that, with my clothes on, doesn’t look fit). But it’s the day to day relief that I value the most, especially at the end of work. So long as I can exercise, I rarely have trouble sleeping or keeping motivated. I count myself lucky that my escape from myself takes such an effective and easy to obtain form.

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