Exercise: When it hurts more not to

I started the summer off with good intentions. Hit the gym three or four times a week, take brisk walks in the park, get back into yoga, lose 10-20 pounds. Well, you know how summer can be. Take a few trips, have the family over, bake a few treats (then eat them), and you get out of the routine before you even really establish one.


I did fairly well, most weeks. Last week, though, I kept three of our active grand kids, and while I made sure they had lots to do (they are brothers, very competitive, and my husband and I have learned the best way to ensure harmony is to keep them busy and basically wear them out), I wasn’t able to exercise as much as I needed to. Three days in, I was tired and achy, and spent most of the day on the couch. The boys left Saturday night, and Sunday I had to hit the gym to work out the kinks. I felt better, and vowed again to keep exercise high on my priority list.

I’ve never been athletic, although I discovered jogging (then walking) in college. I added a twice a week (free!) aerobics class taught by an extremely talented fellow student during my sophomore year. After school, marriage and children, life got busier, but as time allowed, I walked, exercised along with Denise Austin when I could find her on TV, and pushed my little ones around in the double stroller. Exercise was so much easier then!

Since that time, I’ve discovered how uncomfortable moving (or the lack thereof) can be. I’ve battled arthritic knees, tendinitis in more places than I’d like to admit, neck problems that cascade over my shoulders and down my spine, and – I’ll stop. I don’t want to bore you. With the help of physical therapists, I’ve had to learn to stand and sit up straight, keep my shoulders back and down, and to use good form when I do move. I’ve discovered the helpful tools of ice and heat, both of which can help soothe tight or knotted muscles. I know now that I can’t make a living doing hard, physical work. And, most importantly, I’ve learned that moving, even when I don’t feel like it, is probably the best thing I can do to make myself feel better.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but, I’ve found that unless I’m dealing with an acute injury, doing what I can to keep my body moving and strong can actually help me battle chronic pain. Research backs me up. According to a recent article in Medscape, low-level exercise, with an emphasis on aerobics and flexibility, can help ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Other experts have found that even in cases involving nerve pain, appropriate exercise can help reduce muscle cramps, improve muscle strength and prevent muscle wasting.

If the last few years are any indication, chronic pain is something I’ll always deal with, one way or another, for the rest of my life. But I also know that I can likely lessen that pain, and its uncomfortable side effects, if I just keep moving.

A late-Summer’s resolution

Some of my many attempts at regular exercise
Some of my many attempts at regular exercise

I rolled out of bed this morning and soon thereafter did something I really need to keep doing shortly after I get up: exercised. I am, not by nature, a morning person, and am also, not by nature, terribly athletic, so this wanna-be habit will be, I fear, hard-fought before it is won.

But, as time (and the years) go by, I realize that I not only feel better if I start moving as quickly as I can talk myself into it, but that if I don’t, I may well put it off until tomorrow, or, even after the weekend. And while I used to be a pretty high-functioning desk potato, that approach does not work well for me any more.

Earlier this summer, I experimented with starting my day with a short walk. The weather was usually cooperative, the birds were out, and I was almost awake by the time I got home. That plan got derailed when I started traveling back and forth to visit my husband, who was working out of state. Then, the weather got hotter . . . my allergies got worse . . . the gym was air-conditioned. . .  and whoever thought getting up in the morning to exercise was a good idea anyway? Yeah. Well.

Then about a week ago I ran into the foot of the bed and knocked my little toe nearly into the next county. It hurt, very bad, requiring ice, and of course, rest, and I’m only now just beginning to be able to walk on it. (In my defense, I did limp from the car to the gym to the exercise bike several times this week.)

During this morning’s debate with myself over whether I should go back to the gym today, I remembered that I hadn’t done yoga in a while, and that was easily remedied. I pulled out my favorite workout DVD, breathed and stretched, and marked exercise off my to-do list.

I’m not sure why something that makes me feel so much better is just so hard to do. I’ve bounced back and forth from exercising 3-4 times a week to getting it over with first thing in the morning. My new resolution is to not let two days go by without doing some kind of exercise. We’ll see how that works out in the morning.

Massage is my therapy

Water feature at JC Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh, NC
Water feature at JC Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh, NC

I was limping across the parking lot heading for the gym, still lamenting slamming my little toe into the base of the bed Saturday night, when I thought, “At least my neck feels better.” I’ve had ongoing cervical problems for more than a decade, and in part, due to a career change, the last five years have been particularly brutal.

Last week, as the stiffness in my neck and shoulders wound ever tighter, I realized I was overdue for a massage. On Friday, I was introduced to a new (to me, anyway) therapist, and I gave her a quick review of my symptoms: stiff, tight neck and shoulders, complete with lots of knots, which travel around my shoulder blades and down my back. “If you can loosen me up enough,” I told her, “you can do a full body massage. Otherwise, just stick to the areas around my neck.”

Normally, I’ll chat with the therapist for a bit as she concentrates on loosening up my stiff, painful upper body. This time, though, I took advantage of the darkened room, and willed myself to relax, leaving my neck and all its knotted tension in her very capable hands. As is often the case, we only had time for my problem areas before the 60-minute session was up. I felt much better, though, and left with the usual instructions to “drink lots of water.” I was sore the next day, but it was a “good” sore, like the one that follows a successful workout, not the unrelenting ache of clenched muscles I often experience.

I was given my first massage by a woman I interviewed for a feature story for the local paper. She insisted that I accept a gratis massage so I could experience what I was planning on writing about. I knew I was tense – I was going through a divorce – but by the time she was done I felt as pliable and relaxed as melted butter. My only regret was that I had to wake up enough to drive back to the office.

In the years that followed, I developed neck problems and found a massage therapist I visited once or twice a year. I needed therapy more often, but money was tight, so I’d wait until my neck got so stiff I couldn’t take it any more. Eventually that therapist moved away, and I retrained for a new profession.

My neck problems continued, and so did my quest to find relief. I had my neck X-rayed, and went in for an MRI. I saw back specialists, joined a gym, and went to physical therapy. I tried injections, and swallowed pills. Some things helped, other things didn’t, and it finally got to the point where I was hurting just about all the time.

I changed jobs, again, looking for something less strenuous. I kept going to the gym. But, I wondered about massage. It used to work. Maybe it could help me again.

That was last fall, and I’ve scheduled – roughly – a massage a month since that time to try to work out these stubborn kinks. A 2014 study supports my efforts. Research shows that two or more massages a week are the optimum “dose” for relieving neck pain, but that is too pricey for me. I also take medication, and I exercise several times a week.

My own efforts aside, I’ve been “worked on” enough to be able to say that massage, while it may not be a cure for what ails you, can help on so many levels: decreasing muscle tension, relieving stiffness and pain (which can help restore range of motion), and, of course, decreasing stress. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed last year by the American Massage Therapy Association say they tried the modality for stress relief.

Sunset at E. Carroll Joyner Park
Sunset at E. Carroll Joyner Park

I don’t think I’ll ever be free of discomfort from issues surrounding my neck. But I’m certainly glad I found something that will give me some genuine relief. And, since I’ve banged up my toe and can’t indulge in my other favorite form of feel-good therapy – walking – until it heals, it’s good to have something to fall back on. A massage table, I’ve found, does the job nicely.