There are things my body is really good at and things it’s really bad at. For example, my body is really good at gaining weight. On the flip side, it’s also really good at building muscle. My body gave me clear skin as a teenager, but also crooked teeth and frizzy hair. I’m a terrible dancer, but I can spell backwards. It’s a mixed bag, being in my body. That’s really what I’m trying to say.
A little over a year ago now, I injured my right knee badly during a workout. It took a long time to recover, and landed me in physical therapy for 12 weeks. Working my way back from that injury was frustrating and painful and slow.
But what I didn’t anticipate at the beginning of that journey was the fear I would experience after my knee was medically, officially healed and I was cleared to go back to my regular activities.
When I was laid up, all I wanted was to be able to move again. But when that permission came, I found that I was terrified of injuring it again. Really, really scared. Scared of the pain, for sure. But more than that; I was scared of not being in control of my body. Of not being able to move. Of not being able to do my job effectively anymore.
I lost confidence in my ability to predict how my body would perform–of how it would react to the demands I placed upon it. I thought if I made one false move. If I lunged or squatted the wrong way, snap would go my ligament.
That fear was paralyzing. It made the prospect of working out again something that filled me with dread. But when I would think about not exercising, that would scare me too. Because I knew that if I stopped moving, the pain would come back, the muscles supporting my knees would weaken and I would be much more likely to injure it again.
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes. Not fun.
Have any of you ever experienced this? Maybe you experienced an injury similar to mine. Or maybe you gained weight and then felt uncomfortable or insecure in your body. Or maybe you got the message early and often that you weren’t sporty or coordinated, so you’ve never been confident with anything physical. Maybe you think that you don’t know what you’re doing and as a result you’re either going to hurt yourself or embarrass yourself.
I think exercise is often as much about working through mental limitations as it is physical ones. It’s as much about pushing past that voice in your head that’s telling you all of the reasons why you shouldn’t, or cataloging all of the things that could go wrong. as it is about getting your biceps to curl a heavy dumbbell up to your shoulder. Whether what’s holding you back is the fear of physical pain and injury, or the fear of failing, or the fear of people judging you or laughing at you; it doesn’t really matter.
So where to go from here? How do we move from that feeling of damned if we exercise, damned if we don’t?
I can and will tell you what I did. But I don’t want to make it sound like it was some miracle cure and now I’m fixed. I’m not. There are days when I’m still overly cautious with my body. There are still exercises I won’t do; classes I’m reluctant to take. There are still moments when I feel a twinge in my knee and am scared it’s going to give out. I still sometimes lack confidence in my ability to distinguish what’s become a normal level of discomfort in my knees and what’s a sign that something is wrong. There are still days when I’m so frustrated that I work so hard and yet my knees sometimes still feel so weak. It’s a work in progress for sure.
Here’s what helps me.
I got expert advice and I follow it. Because my injury was so bad, I had physical therapy. Those therapists gave me exercises to do every day and I still do them, nearly a year after my last PT appointment. They also told me the warning signs to watch for–things that were flashing red lights to stop what I was doing before I hurt myself. They gave me a list of exercises to avoid. And told me how much pain was okay to work through and how much was too much. I wrote it down and I stick to it.
I take time to take it easy. I never used to spend much time on stretching or mobilization exercises. Now, two of my workout days are active recovery days where I do stretching and “pre-hab” routines.
I learned which muscles needed to be stronger to support my knees. In my case, that’s my hamstrings and the muscles of my quadriceps. I make sure I do safe exercises that strengthen those muscles several times each week.
I write down what my fears are, and I get specific. Sometimes naming a fear takes some of the fear out of it. Then I refute it, or I decide how I’m going to address it.
Even if your fear isn’t driven by an injury, some of these strategies can still work. Maybe working with a personal trainer would help your confidence because you’d get some expert advice on how to do exercises correctly and safely. Or maybe going to the gym or a class with a friend would take some of the anxiety out of the experience for you.
I don’t know that I’m someone who necessarily thinks everything happens for a reason. But I do know that my injury humbled me in ways that were probably good for me as a trainer. I’ve said before on this blog that I struggled with my weight and with feeling uncomfortable in my body for many years in my teens and twenties. So, before this experience I don’t think I would have said that I was unaware of what it was like to feel that way.
But I do think that sometimes I probably forgot just a little. I think that sometimes those feelings weren’t as accessible to me as they might have been because I found myself so far on the other end of the fitness spectrum in my thirties.
This injury, while mostly healed, will have lingering effects. There will always be occasional pain. There will always be exercises I don’t do. There will always be modifications I need to make and days when frustration and fear override confidence and ambition. And I’ve gotten to a place where I think that’s okay.
Because it means I always have one foot in both worlds. I’m firmly planted in my personal trainer world–in a world where I love moving and challenging my body. But I’m also never far away from that other place. That place of physical pain; that place where your body isn’t a predictable, known quantity; that place where moving is a loaded emotional and physical proposition.
If you find yourself there too, you are definitely not alone. And you should give yourself a pat on the back for feeling that way and working through it to do great things for your body and your health.