By Jamie Stewart
Most lives are defined by achievements: graduations, marriages, having children, getting the well-deserved promotion. These achievements help us to define who we are. When dealing with a chronic illness, achievements are measured in a different way, or at least they are for me.
The most mundane activities have now become an achievement. Getting out of bed and working eight hours: achievement. Taking the dogs for a walk: achievement. Going on a date with my wife: achievement. Dealing with daily stress and keeping it from triggering a negative response: achievement.
For someone with a chronic illness, life is a game of energy management. Recently, I decided that I needed to become more active. Activity has been shown to benefit all aspects of life. But I’m scared. How much is too much? Will I be able to move the next day? Will my pain levels increase? All were valid concerns, and I weighed them carefully. Finally, I decided that the only way I would know would be to try. So one night a couple of weeks ago, I coyly said to my wife, “I’m going to use the elliptical.”
I was immediately dodging my wife’s daggers because the last time I tried to exercise I ended up in bed for a week. Fearing for my safety, I quickly added, “It will only be five minutes - I promise!”
Three years ago, 60 minutes on the elliptical machine was just a way to kill time. Turn on a sporting event, hit level 10 and be off. Sweat would soon drench my shirt, and by the end I felt great! My stress was gone. I felt stronger. Most importantly, to me, I felt as though I did something that would improve how I looked. Back then, exercise was all about vanity. Lifting weights and pushing my body wasn’t for health reasons - that was a side benefit. The real reason I did it was so I could keep from buying bigger pants while continuing to drink beer and eat chicken wings.
As I stood there contemplating using the elliptical for the first time in almost a year, I figured the best way to keep from overdoing it would be if I didn’t turn on the power. No resistance, just a nice easy five minutes. I didn’t use a timer; I let my body decide when I’d had enough. After what easily felt like five minutes, and because my legs were burning and rubbery, I stopped to catch my breath. I took a mental assessment of how I felt which was pretty good, and pulled myself back upstairs, triumphant! I was greeted by my wife who said, “I thought you were going five minutes?” I panicked. Was I really on it that long? Crap, I should have used the timer! “Sorry I didn’t mean to go so long,” I stammered. My wife countered, “No, you were only on it for two minutes. I timed you because I thought you would overdo it.”
While I was relieved that I had kept up my end of the bargain, I was also dismayed that I had regressed that far. Two stinking minutes is barely long enough for someone to sell you some new T.V. gizmo. But then I realized, why be upset? This is my starting point.
I am happy to say that I can now go seven minutes. I know, it isn’t a lot, but it’s the best I can do right now. The key is to consistently improve. The days of pushing myself to the point of physical exhaustion are gone, but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve my health.
It’s hard to admit that I am so physically weak. I feel like the 98 pound weakling in the old Charles Atlas advertisement. Still, I hope that someday soon I can power on the elliptical. That will be an achievement, and I just might treat myself to some wings and beer.