How Sweat It Is | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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How Sweat It Is

Stumbling into an into-body experience


Published January 14, 2004 at 2:23 p.m.

Whoever came up with the line "No pain, no gain" probably wasn't thinking about wrenched backs and broken toes. But that's what it took to get me off my ass and onto the elliptical trainer -- the same machine that lets our Commander-in-Chief satisfy his jogging jones without jarring his Executive Knees. Coincidence aside, the "W" that transformed me from chair warmer to gym junkie wasn't a Bush, but a bunch of weeds.

Spring had finally arrived, and after my long winter's inertia I plunged into gardening, then spent a happy half-hour harvesting strawberries. By bedtime, my back was making me painfully aware that I'd jumped into the season much too fast. I swallowed some ibuprofen, then eased under the covers and into the only position that didn't make me feel like crying. I didn't budge again until morning -- by which time, even budging was an issue. Every way I turned, I hurt, whether I was trying to tear a sheet of toilet paper from the roll, get a glass from the dishwasher, or reach for more ibuprofen.

Friends spoke ominously of surgery. One acquaintance confided that the only real cure for a bad back is drugs. I wasn't looking forward to spending the foreseeable future floating in a medicated fog. But that seemed preferable to perpetual pain. Instead of pushing pills, my doctor handed me a list of physical therapists. I picked On Track in Burlington, the one closest to where I work. I had no idea of what to expect -- from the treatment or myself.

When I showed up for my first appointment, I found a large room with a reception area and three treatment tables. An adjoining space housed an array of intimidating exercise equipment for use in physical therapy or by fitness freaks who paid for gym memberships. Mirrors lined a couple walls, and The Kinks' "Come Dancing" was playing on the sound system. In the treatment room, a middle-aged man wearing only gym shorts was lying under a heating pad on one table while a hippie-ish kid assumed pretzel poses on another.

Physical therapist Brian Loeffler sat me down and asked me where it hurt. It didn't take him long to diagnose my problem as "lumbar muscle strain." Known as weight lifter's back, it's also common for folks like me, who spend most days sitting at computers.

After explaining my problem, Brian asked me to stand up straight. Eager to make a good impression, I rose to my feet. The trouble was, I wasn't really sure what "straight" meant. I knew that I needed to suck in my gut, but should I pull my pelvis back, or forward? And what about my neck and shoulders? I wasn't used to paying that sort of attention to my body. As long as I was basically healthy, my reasoning went, such merely physical concerns were vacuous and unworthy of my attention. Even if Brian hadn't suggested I watch myself in the mirror, pondering my posture would have felt awkward.

To demonstrate what I was doing wrong, Brian pulled out a flexible toy spine. The clever little model had cool moving parts that distracted me from listening to his words. It suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea which side of the gizmo was facing front. Ashamed of my appalling ignorance, I didn't ask.

Luckily, there wasn't a quiz. Even better, treating my seized-up muscles meant lying tummy-down with a heating pad on the small of my back. When was the last time I'd done something that felt this great, just for myself? Getting an insurance-covered medical directive basically to be pampered seemed like a scam.

Payback for this guilty indulgence came soon enough. Brian sent me to the fitness room. Ten minutes on the stationary bike would further loosen my muscles, he said. The ordeal felt like forever. My legs ached, my heart pounded and my lungs gasped. I remembered the hamster my sister had when we were little. It ran itself to death on its wheel.

Somehow I survived, and was rewarded for my effort with another example of feel-good physical therapy: an ultrasound massage. After applying gel to my skin, Brian slowly worked a metal wand back and forth over the injured area. "Ultrasound waves work like deep heat," he explained. By penetrating deep into the muscle tissue, the waves increase blood flow and promote relaxation. They also break up any adhesion or scar tissue that may be impeding the muscle fibers. Once I'd gotten over feeling self-conscious, I enjoyed the quiet comfort of being massaged -- another new experience for me. And I appreciated my back's improved mobility when I stood up. After that first session, I couldn't wait for my next treatment.

To keep me progressing -- or at least guard against backsliding -- between appointments, Brian taught me how to bend down. Balancing a green exercise ball between my lower back and the wall, I bent my knees, curving my back and sticking my butt out. In the mirror, I looked like a baboon. "When you're working in the garden," Brian instructed, "try to imagine that you're holding that ball in place."

He also showed me some stretches to keep my lumbar area limber, and an exercise focused on my abdomen. "People who really work on these muscles get what they call a six-pack," he gently explained. What I heard was, "It's about time you started working off that gut." For months, I'd been pretending not to notice the trouble I had fastening waistbands, or the rolls of flesh spilling out at my sides, making me dread bathing suits and my own reflection.

The point of the abdomen exercise wasn't beauty, though. Its purpose was to strengthen muscles whose job it is to help hold me up, lightening the load on my back. The exercise itself seemed almost criminally minimal: Lie on my back and tighten my tummy 10 times. Rest and repeat. Then do it again. Running through the routine in the living room always drew guffaws from my exercise-averse husband and daughter. I laughed, too, as certain as they were that this pseudo-workout was the closest I would ever come to the world of physical fitness.


To be fair, I hadn't lived a life of total sloth. Though I'd never played a sport, I did own a bicycle and regularly walked to work. During my first pregnancy, I swam in Los Angeles, where palm trees swayed beside the pool in the January sun. More recently, in Vermont, I'd done laps at the Y -- until I caught a cold and let my membership drop. I'd even tried jogging two or three times. But strolling beside the lake was much more pleasant, and a lot easier.

This time, though, I was under doctor's orders. Ever the good student, I did my homework and kept my appointments, where I dutifully followed all Brian's directives. As he weaned me, week by week, off passive pampering and onto increasingly active exertions, I was amazed to discover that I wasn't just willing to comply, but able.

My bicycling sessions increased, along with my stamina. My stomach-sucking schtick was replaced by exercises that felt like actual work -- and that actually felt good. As I went about my life, I found myself able to do more and more things, such as carrying the recycling to the curb and raking leaves, without pain. Just living inside my flesh began to feel different: My body seemed less like bulk dragging me down and more like a bulwark supporting me.

In October, Brian told me we were through. My back was better and I had an exercise regime to keep it that way. To stay limber, I was to take regular walks. I tried not to show my disappointment. Without the structure of semi-weekly appointments, I wondered how long my resolve would last. The idea of slacking off was doubly disheartening because, after all these years of dismissing physical activity, I was surprised to find that I liked it.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Call it coincidence, fate or a subconscious strategy to sabotage my release from Brian's care: The day after our parting conversation, I stepped out of the bathroom in the dark and stubbed my toe, hard, on the leg of the hutch. It hurt like hell. A trip to the doctor's confirmed that the toe was broken. But I didn't need to wait for the x-ray results to know that my planned walks would have to be postponed. To maintain my momentum, I bought a month's membership at the gym and asked Brian to suggest some exercises to accommodate a bum foot.

He did that, and then some. For starters, he put me on the elliptical trainer: a cross between a treadmill and a Stairmaster that let me "walk" without pounding the pavement. Snowshoe-like pedals moved along an incline that could be adjusted to put pressure on, or take it off, different muscles. Lights on the dashboard showed whether I was working my calves, hamstrings, quads or glutes -- and taught me what those terms meant. By keeping the stress off my calves, I could work my legs while protecting my toe.

The controls let me choose whether I felt like I was walking on air or wading through muck, and enabled me to monitor my virtual distance. It also kept track of time, heart rate, pace and calories consumed. Those blinking lights weren't just entertaining; they were inspiring. How could I not try to push the monitor out of "weight loss" and into the "cardiovascular" zone? If I'd just been taking real walks, I would have just, well, walked. I also wouldn't have done anything else to build up my strength. But under Brian's direction, I learned to use the strange black machines built for that purpose.

Imaginative engineering had gone into the design of the "seated leg curl," which looked like what might happen if a dental chair mated with a spinning wheel. Flexing at the knee pushed down a footrest that turned a disc that pulled a strap that lifted a stack of weights. The result: stronger hamstrings. After a month of three sets of 10 reps four times a week at 35 pounds, I was stunned to discover that, by running my hands along my legs, I could actually confirm the claim.

Ditto my quads. They got their due on the "leg extension," which reversed the motion of the "leg curl." Other machines and some work with free weights focused on my arms and upper back. Lying against an exercise ball and curling at the waist addressed my ongoing abdominal issue.

After all these months my gut is still a problem, though much less so than it was in June. I realize my hard work has been paying off every time I button my fly. Other physical changes: Objects have gotten lighter, staircases seem less steep, and the number of tasks I can accomplish in a day has increased.

A more subtle adjustment has occurred in my outlook. My first hint of this shift came one day when I was resting between sets on the "lateral pull down." Another woman was running on the treadmill and a third lay on her back, wrapping her legs around an exercise ball and raising it over her head.

I'd reached that slightly buzzed, sweetly tired state I've learned is the reward of a good workout, and these other women couldn't have looked better. And then it struck me: Neither one fit the standard, skinny definition of beauty. For all my dissatisfaction with my appearance, I was probably closer to our culture's ideal than they were. And yet they were wonderful to watch because they were carrying themselves with such ease. Could I do the same?

With a jolt, I realized that I could. All those months of forced focus on my body had given my mind a workout, as well.

Just after New Year's, my toe finally healed, freeing me to walk all I want. Getting outside again is great, but I don't anticipate dropping my gym membership anytime soon. Now that I've learned to tell my teres major from my latissimus dorsi -- and to love them both -- I'm not about to throw in the towel.