The Art and Science of Fitness | Don’t let injuries be the spoilsport - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | Don’t let injuries be the spoilsport

May 19, 2024 08:30 AM IST

When you lead an active life, injuries are inevitable. It’s easy to give up, but then we miss out on one of the greatest lessons a sport can teach you

“A ship is safe in the harbour, but that's not what ships are for.” That’s a popular quote, attributed to John A. Shedd, which sums up my thoughts on living life. Ships are made for voyages, which don’t always go smoothly. At some stage, you’ll experience the tempest, a violent storm. Things will fall apart, your ship might suffer damage. Sometimes it might seem like whatever could go wrong, will go wrong. When you least expect it, things will get worse than you ever expected. You’ll want those awful weeks, months and years to disappear in a moment. But there will be amazing days too, where you’ll want to pause the moment so you could soak it in for infinity.

Sometimes an injury can be a blessing in disguise: it can lead us to correct our form, teach us perseverance and build character. (Pixabay) PREMIUM
Sometimes an injury can be a blessing in disguise: it can lead us to correct our form, teach us perseverance and build character. (Pixabay)

Like the ships, our lives go through highs and lows. Those who are physically active, experience life in its full glory. Along with it comes soreness, and if you’re unlucky, it might lead to a serious injury.

How we react in the face of these setbacks shows us what we are made of. Sometimes an injury can be a blessing in disguise: it can lead us to correct our form, teach us perseverance and build character. After all, failure is the best teacher in life. The biggest life lesson is to bounce back and get on with life.

My co-author, Eva Bacon, grew up in Germany. In her late teens, she picked up rock climbing: indoors, outdoors, top rope, lead climbing, you name it. But then one fine day, the rope her partner had brought was not long enough, so at the end of a climb while repelling down, the rope ran out and she fell and fractured her lumbar spine (lower back). At just 19 years old, she had three major back surgeries and had to learn how to walk again. Most surgeons might have advised her to change her ways and lead a less active life, as her mother certainly did, but instead, her physiotherapist advised that now she could make sure that she always had enough muscle mass to support the weakened bones. That there was no room to slack off through unhealthy weight gain and losing her mobility. She was compelled to lead an active lifestyle. Ironically, she might have fewer back issues than her more sedentary peers.

In retrospect, Eva has believed this to be a rookie mistake that a mere knot at the end of the rope would have prevented. To improve, we always need to be humble and recognise our mistakes. If we have the maturity to learn from our mistakes, that characteristic will go a long way in life.

Still, Eva often found herself asking the question, “Why me?”. Everything had been going well, as it does for anyone her age, and suddenly it all came crashing down. There were dark days, mornings she struggled to get out of bed. At times it was one step forward and two steps back, she shared. “A lot of what got me through it was my family, a few close friends and the medical staff: above all the nurses and physiotherapists,” she said. We need to appreciate the role our family, friends and medical professionals play, all of which tend to be taken for granted.

The road to recovery was a long one. She spent the first few days on a blissful morphine drip. After that, pain became a constant companion. Easy things were suddenly hard. The first trip from the hospital bed to the door and back, a mere five metres, had her drenched in sweat from the exertion. Three weeks in the hospital were followed by five weeks in a rehab facility. Putting on socks by herself suddenly felt like a monumental task. It wasn’t easy, being thrown back into the state of a toddler and dependent on her family for basic tasks. She was unable to sit for longer than 30 minutes at a time (she got a standing desk before it was cool). She missed three months of her apprenticeship and was lucky she had a kind employer who didn’t fire her.

In the hospital and rehab, the focus was to mobilise as soon as possible and a daily exercise regimen was prescribed: walking/treadmill and strength/resistance training. Slowly but surely things improved. The advice from the physiotherapist on the best way to strengthen the back? Rock climbing is something most other doctors would have discouraged.

It took a while until she was ready to face the wall again. But eventually, she did, with the help of a trusted friend.

“There is this memory from the hospital, the night of the accident. I had just signed the waiver that I accept the risk of either not waking up from my eight-hour surgery the next day or being confined to a wheelchair for life. And I asked myself: was this worth the price I might pay? And I thought of the wonderful memories of bi-weekly gym climbing with a friend that kept me sane during my final years of high school, or the trip to the north of Italy with friends where we climbed all day and then relaxed by jumping into the lake. The answer was: yes, I would do it all over again.”

As tough as it was, getting that kind of perspective at the tender age of 19 has been a blessing for her. Everything since has been a bonus. Having hit rock bottom (literally) she learned the importance of a supportive network of family and friends and the tremendous cumulative effect of a little bit of consistent effort every day. Lastly, she learnt a basic set of three back exercises which she has been doing every day since then. She can slack away for a few days, but then her back reminds her that it wants attention and she gets back to it.

Here are the three back exercises Eva has done for over two decades:

  1. Cat Camel - Begin on all fours. Slowly lower your head as you raise your back. Then slowly start to raise your head while dropping back in a downward arch.
  2. Spiderman Plank - Start in a low plank position with your body in a straight line, your elbows bent and under your shoulders, and your feet hip-width apart. Bring your right knee to your right elbow. Extend your right leg back and return to the starting position. Repeat on the left side.
  3. Mountain Climber - Get into a plank position. Pull your right knee to the outside of the right elbow while keeping your hips down. Hold that position for a couple of seconds. And then switch sides and repeat.

She continued these exercises throughout her two pregnancies too (in addition to prenatal yoga and lots of biking), went into delivery strong and had a very short recovery.

“Probably the greatest gift: being able to carry around my two beautiful daughters as much as I want without worrying about back pain. And now my older one says she wants to go running with me.”

Nowadays, she is looking forward to running a marathon this year. She is also free from back pain and grateful for the life lessons and grit from the experience.

We are not in control of the cards we are dealt by life. But we can decide what to do with them. Bodies recover miraculously well. Tissue regrows and fractured bones heal. Often, people with some handicap, be it physical or the metaphorical chip on their shoulder, excel. Because they have learned what they and their bodies are capable of when they put their mind to it.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is a student of Running & Pain, Sports Medicine & Musculoskeletal Medicine Physician and Author

Eva Bacon (evabacon.com) Runner, Roller Blader, Rock Climber, Urban Hiker, Translator and IT Program Manager

Rajat and Eva write a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal.

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