Walking into Spring

I started walking for exercise not long after my 62nd birthday last fall. The number 62 alone was enough to give me a heart attack (I’m how old??), but it was just the start. I was also appalled at the way the numbers on my bathroom scale were creeping slowly but inexorably upward. My sedentary lifestyle left me puffing after climbing a single, short flight of stairs, and I could feel, in my soul, the overall un-fitness of my body.

My only body.

In short, my 62nd birthday was a wake-up call. I was aging and lazing my sleepy way toward a heart attack, or some other unhealthy event, so I really had to do something about myself.

Where to start?

After some thought, I started on a gentle, carbohydrate-lite diet. This type of lean meat and veggie-oriented diet is really the only one that’s ever worked for me. And while I knew it wouldn’t be easy to delete daily sandwiches, chips, and cookies from my life, the alternative—dying thick, lumpy, slug-like, and sad—didn’t appeal. At all.

But I knew I needed more than just a diet: I needed to move. Day after day spent sitting at my desk or drawing table, or relaxed in a recliner, were gonna kill me. And right on cue, my inner voice started barking at me. “But you hate exercise! Sweating is yucky! And what about your RD? You’ll just make yourself hurt more. You don’t have time for exercise. Are you out of your mind?”

I’ve listened to that strident little voice for so many years. For each of them, I’ve gained another five pounds and lost more muscle strength. So, this time, I finally talked back. “You’re self-employed. You have all day, every day, to fit an hour of exercise into. And this isn’t high school, you know. It’s not calisthenics. You don’t have to run or play field hockey! Just… walk. Or use weight equipment. If you sweat, so what? Everyone sweats! Take a shower afterward.”

“But your rheumatoid disease,” the voice wheedled. “You can’t exercise if you hurt. You’ll just fail! Again!”

I wasn’t having any of it. “You can move the joints that don’t hurt, right? And all the best medical and science people say that exercise will help RD more than hurt.”

Since the apartment community where I live offers a gym as part of the amenities, I couldn’t even use the expense of a private gym membership as an excuse. The voice tried reminding me how fat I look in gym clothes and how embarrassed I’d be if there were slim, attractively fit people working out all around me, but I cut it off. “How do you suppose they got that way?” It gave up.

Step by step …

Even so, I knew I’d fail if I tried to do too much at once. So, I started with the treadmill, bringing earbuds and my phone with me so I could distract myself from the inner voice that would, inevitably, remind me how utterly boring walking on a treadmill was. I set my timer for 30 minutes, telling myself I’d stop after 15 if … well, if it hurt too much.

So, here’s how it went. After the first five minutes or so at a steady pace, it was uncomfortable. The tendons and ligaments around the joints in my hips, knees, and ankles felt like cold rubber straps—and just as stiff. The joints twinged at random moments, sending urgent “don’t you dare do this to us!” signals to my brain. And my feet? The ones that hurt from the moment I get out of bed in the morning, with their 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments? They started yelling at me, totally panicked.

But I kept on, teeth gritted as I felt my muscles start to warm up, and in turn, felt them warm up those un-stretchy ligaments and tendons. The discomfort faded. When I hit the 15-minute mark, I was doing well. My muscles were warm and comfortable. And although I anticipated them, there were no more twinges and—a relief—no joints suddenly flaring into pain. I walked, listening to a podcast. And then my alarm went off.

I almost kept on anyway, but sensible Wren piped up. That’s good enough, I told myself. Start slow! Don’t sabotage yourself by overdoing it the first day! I left the gym feeling encouraged—and good. My legs were tired—I was tired—but not so much that I couldn’t get on with my day. I figured my muscles would probably be sore that night or the next day, but after 30-plus years of RD joint pain, sore muscles are nothin’. I laughed. And to my surprise, my mind felt good. I’d done it! Yes!

Motivated now …

Next day I did it again. And a few days after that, when I reached 30 minutes, I felt like I could go on for another 15, so I did. Yes, I was still physically tired afterward. We don’t get fit overnight. During the short walk back to my apartment from the gym, my hip joints felt too loose, like they were about to become unhinged. But they didn’t, of course, and once again, my mind felt good. I was pleased with myself. When, I wondered, had I last been pleased with myself? I couldn’t remember. It was … a revelation.

Within a few weeks, I was walking the t-mill for an hour, four days a week, most of it at a fairly quick pace. I’d come home overheated and sweaty—I’d upped the walking speed and even the incline a bit—and dog tired, but I’m here to tell you, the change was in my head was, an is, worth it. Once I showered and ate lunch (I’d be ravenous!) I’d find myself unable to sit at my desk or in the recliner for very long. I was antsy. I had energy! I remembered how I’d been as a kid, always moving, always running and jumping, always busy. That had been so much fun! So, I start counting my steps with a phone app, and each time I’d manage to reach a new step-goal it made me smile.

Other good changes were taking place, too. But … I got tired of the treadmill. More about that next time.

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