The importance of regular exercise

I hated exercising as a child. It always meant painful stretching, being isolated from friends and cousins, and occasional beatings. I’m not one of those blaming-types but my father and my grandfather contributed a lot towards my disenchantment with exercising. They didn’t have the required patience to assist a kid with cerebral palsy keep himself flexible enough. After just a few tries, they would get frustrated and that would result in some good old-school venting out.

I liked physiotherapy in my special school even when sometimes it was quite painful. The therapists knew that I had to go through tremendous pain each time I exercised so they were never angry or pissed off when I resisted. They simply forced me to follow a schedule. When I was young, physiotherapy was mostly physical, they had no idea that for the muscles to relax, the mind needed to be ready. Later on pre-therapy relaxation became a part of physiotherapy but by that time I had left my special school and joined a mainstream school.

After leaving school nobody paid much attention to my exercise. My parents used to bug me on and off whenever suddenly they realized that it was difficult for me, or instance, to get into a cab, or get out. Other than that, normally they wouldn’t bother, and I preferred that way.

In my late teens I became conscious of how I looked, although I knew beyond a certain point I couldn’t improve my appearance. I would lift weights, I would do push-ups and situps and I would go on long walks to keep myself healthy. I wasn’t regular, but for the next 10 years or so, I was exercising or doing long walks at least 6 months of the year. My focus was, of course, misdirected. Whenever I exercised, my 2 motives were: having good shape for my upper torso and arms, and building lots of stamina for walking.

Although both these aspects benefited me in the long run, they also made my body stiff. My problem was moving my limbs away from my body, not towards my body, and when I was lifting weights, I was always moving my arms towards my body and that was counterproductive because my body already had this tendency of coiling every limb inwards.

The benefits were that I’m still healthier compared to many of my friends with cerebral palsy, and my 10 years of an intermittent physical schedule also made my bones stronger. People with cerebral palsy have this tendency to develop osteoporosis, so if for nothing else, one should exercise just to avoid this problem.

Then I got married and got busy with other pressing needs of life and somehow, regular exercise got relegated to “O yes, I should exercise”. Even walking got reduced to as little as maybe a month in a year. After my power wheelchair, even indoor walking ceased.

All my work involves typing (computer keyboard). I was doing so much typing that by the end of the day my shoulders would ache because when I type it’s not my wrists that move up and down, but my arms. That was not the only problem; just because I use two fingers to type (middle finger of both hands) my typing speed wouldn’t go beyond a particular limit. I started using a dictation software. I can easily claim that if I was typing 20 words in a minute, now I could type 100. That was a big leap. Soon I stopped typing. I only typed while doing programming.

So most of the time my right arm would remain in this position:

arm-position-1

After a couple of years my arm got fixed to that position, and it became difficult to even clip my nails. While attempting to charge my phone, keeping the phone in place on the table with my right hand while plugging in the charging pin would turn into an ordeal.

I do stretching everyday in the morning these days, both legs and arms. When I had just started exercising I could raise my arm only this much:

arm-position-2

and that too with lots of effort and pain. Now I can bring it this much:

arm-position-3

I’m sure in 3-4 month I can take it beyond 90 degrees but my objective is not that. Regularity is my main objective. Rather than worrying about how high I can take my arm in 5 months, my objective is to keep on exercising for 5 months without losing track and without getting discouraged.

With a permanent disability, especially when you are dealing physical disabilities at multiple levels, keeping your motivation level up can be difficult. It’s not like you are exercising to lose weight or something. You are exercising just to be able to hold your spoon or type that next sentence on your computer. It can take months to notice even a difference of a few inches of flexibility.

Another problem is, each time you stop exercising for a few months, it’s back to the square one and by the time you start again, your muscles have atrophied. You may also face resistance in the beginning. You may feel stiffer and this may permanently set you off.

This is why I’ve started following my wife’s advice, who was an athlete in her college and trained under a professional coach. She always says that listen to your body and never over-stretch. For instance, if you can stretch your arm just 30 degrees, don’t start thinking of stretching it 90 degrees. Just focus on 40, and then 50, and then 60, and so on. This way your body gets to adapt to your exercise routine at its own pace, and there is also no initial resistance.

Coming back to not setting time-bound goals when exercising. Every body has its own pace and when you start thinking in terms of this:

arm-position-4

you may either injure yourself or get highly de-motivated if you don’t succeed.

Instead, focus on regular exercise for the next two months, and then, for the next two months. More than how much you exercise, focus on regularity, even if it is just for 15 minutes. It’s a proven medical fact the your body reacts to movements. So whether you can feel it or not, when you move your arms and legs new cells are building and your muscles are getting stronger. When you stretch regularly your joints are stretching and moving your arms and legs is becoming a little bit easier, whether you realize it or not.