Down With the Weakness

My weekly physical therapy sessions ended last Wednesday, and I’m surprised by how much I already miss them. Or, really, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed something that originally felt so far outside my comfort zone, was vaguely embarrassing to watch, and often painful.

I first sought help in mid-winter because of recurring significant pain I was experiencing in my right shoulder. I’m lucky enough to work at a college with a top PT degree program, and a teaching clinic that’s a short walk from my office. Their free services are in high demand and it took some waiting to get on the schedule, but I made it in by mid-March and from the first day had a senior PT student named Jackie working to help diagnose my issue and figure out how to fix it. It didn’t take her very long to find the problem, and once she explained it to me everything suddenly clicked, and a relief of finally understanding why I was in pain washed over me.

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My pain and discomfort was a result of weakness. I had been forcing one set of muscles to compensate for the weakness of others, and they weren’t designed to do both jobs.

Jackie coached me on how to carefully build up strength where I was weak and help all my muscles work together again to perform more efficiently. Just like any good team, the stronger each muscle was individually then the stronger they would all be together, each working equally in concert. The system is designed to be efficient.

But I wouldn’t have learned this without first admitting there was a problem I couldn’t solve on my own. I had to open myself up to the knowledge and skill of an outside expert. Even though she was 20 years younger than me, Jackie knew way more about what muscles are, where they are, and how they work than I ever will. Had I not done this I ran the risk of turning a mere discomfort into a real injury.

Although my regular weekly sessions have come to a close, and I may still have soreness or pains from time to time, I have now have knowledge I didn’t have before. I have a new understanding of my own construction, my inner servos and actuators. And I have more specific goals that I can understand and actually motivate me.

I had stopped doing weight training at the gym over a year ago because I didn’t feel motivated. Now I have a connection to those exercises with specific goals tied to therapy. I’ve established a familiarity with the equipment — both the gym weights and my own muscles — that I didn’t have before. Without those goals, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it without feeling ridiculous.

Weight training for me is no longer about building strength, but reducing weakness. They are two sides of the same coin, yet somehow one is more motivating to me than the other.

Once again, applying the practice of “Goals before Tools” beyond my work and into daily life has helped me improve.

I’ll never be an Ironman because that’s not my goal. I’ll probably never run a marathon or even a 5k. But I want to be healthy, and I want to remember the value of time spent focusing on improving myself.

Those PT appointments were almost meditative, a welcome break I had to take each week to do nothing for 45 minutes or so except to move my arms and body with a specific, concentrated effort. I was forced to empty my mind of to-do lists and deadlines, leave my phone and my screens behind and simply do what Jackie told me to do next, focus on my motions and be in that moment. Stretch, bend, lift, pull, breathe. Repeat.

Six weeks of sessions did help my aching muscles, and I’m healthier now than when I started. But going to PT also helped my mind during a stressful time, and that may be the best therapy I could ask for. I’m almost tempted to pull something else, just so I can have the excuse to go back.

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