Something I have rarely done is talk in detail about my methods, even though for many years I have had some pretty good success with many conditions where people were frustrated and had reached the end of their rope. The story I’m going to tell you today is about one of my people. Her name has been changed for obvious reasons but the story is really what is important. It is a bit long, but hopefully when you’re done you will gain a new appreciation for what proper progressed and appropriate exercise can potentially do for someone who had given up on ever improving herself physically.
Just over two years ago a woman walked into the local chain gym where I worked and asked to be set up with a trainer who had dealt with special populations. She had decided to try exercise as a way to help her with various physical problems. I was referred from the trainer she was initially set up with who basically told me “I have no idea how to deal with her”. Maureen was instantly suspicious when she sat down with me because she was used to promises. In a nutshell, her story was simple. Thirty years ago she had been hit by a tractor trailer in her car, almost killing both her and her husband. She had broken her back and sustained a lot of trauma to much of her body, mostly in her hips and spine. Because of their circumstances she had never really had proper care beyond some brief physical therapy after they both got out of the hospital and had basically lived the way she was for that time. She wasn’t overweight, she just had massive physical restrictions. Here’s a short list of what she dealt with:
- She walked with a constant limp in her left leg, dragging it for most steps
- Any force on her back or hips (stepping off of a bus, for example) could cause a migraine headache and make her feel nauseous
- She couldn’t rest her head on the head rest in her car without pain. She couldn’t turn to check her blind spot without a problem.
- Constant ringing in her ears that would become worse with any sharp noise
- Since her body was so bound up, she had IBS whenever she changed anything in her diet
- Sleeping was tough because her back was constantly sore and she would get nauseous and spasm whenever she tried to turn over
She had seen physios, chiros, osteopaths, doctors and many other professionals over the recent years because she was at the end of her rope. She tried many practitioners and did not see any improvement. One massage therapist actually refused to treat her and doctors tried to give her pills constantly. She also dealt with all of this while taking care of her husband who had his own set of physical limitations. Her life was very, very hard and she was sick and tired of it.
When I sat there with her and heard her story, I didn’t know if I could help her, but all I told her was that I was willing to try and she would be under the best of care. I asked her to commit for six months and we would see how things went, but if things weren’t working out then she could walk away any time. She agreed and decided to place her faith in that I was at least willing to try. Doctors had turned her away telling her that they couldn’t do anything for her. The saddest thing is (and she told me this only after we had worked together for a year) she was actually planning suicide if she couldn’t be helped because she was so tired of her life and how she felt every day.
Let that sink in and then imagine the massive responsibility that I carried when working with this woman. Here’s the first few exercises we ever did together:
- Modified squatting movement at 140 degrees of knee flexion (she could not go further than this – I used a bar behind her to guide her movement).
- Stepping up had to be modified to only five inches of height, otherwise it caused a headache and nerve pain right away. We focused on movement and coordination.
- She could pull things, so we sat her down and did some one armed shoulder and back work, focusing on moving her shoulder blade properly.
- She was unable to bend, twisting was out of the question and even simple movements with her hips caused her a problem, so traditional “core” work was out of the question. For example, having her able to lie on her back on a mat without pain was a first accomplishment.
- For movement her walking started at 2 miles per hour – and she could only do that for about five minutes before being exhausted and having to sit down. And she was not overweight.
Often other trainers would wonder what I was doing and my only answer was “being careful”. Often during a workout she would get nauseous and experience pain in various places, but this could be used to find out what movements she was capable of, and with what degree of force her body could tolerate. An additional inch of movement or five more degrees of angle was an accomplishment. Loads were increased incrementally workout by workout.
Six months into her regime she fell off of the bus and broke her foot. The good news I took from that is not only did she not want to stop exercising; she was encouraged by the fact that she caught herself without falling to the ground. We continued to work on her back and upper body. Her headaches were lessening in frequency and movements were becoming easier. We were able to expand ranges, add some load and introduce new patterns to her brain, which had previously guarded against them. A year in she picked up 80 pounds (half her bodyweight) with good form. She didn’t limp any more when she walked in. By now I had learned what movements might trigger things and what signs to look for when she was trying to hide that she was extremely tired so that we didn’t do too much to her.
About fourteen months in she was doing quite well so we introduced mild jogging for 15 seconds. She had not jogged for over 30 years and was ecstatic even though it was very hard for her. She could lift things off of the floor, squat, bend and push things over her head at this point. Twisting was still an issue for her spine (likely due to scar tissue build up) and I told her it might always be. She could get down on the floor and get up again with minimal assistance more than once. However, some weeks we would push things just a bit too hard and have to scale back and gently nudge things forward again carefully. There was a constant process of progression in small increments.
Today I’m happy to report that Maureen can pick up 50 pounds several times without an issue, can squat with a (small) back load but load her front no problem, can jog for 60 seconds and can twist without nerve impingement. She can do a full plank for 30 seconds. She can do movement without having to anticipate a problem. More importantly, her headaches are non-existent, she can sleep at night without pain, she doesn’t have to worry about falling off of the bus and she can check her blind spot while driving without a problem. Just the other day she reported to me that she rolled over in bed without thinking about it and was fine – for the first time since her accident. For some of us this is a simple thing, but for her it is huge and means she can sleep through the night without getting woken up. She is stronger – and therefore her body is more able to deal with the forces it encounters every day and not manifest them in pain or nausea.
I use this as an example to many people about the power of proper exercise and application of force. With a lot of work, careful application and monitoring and a big investment in time and effort her life has been completely transformed in a positive way. It has taken two years for us to achieve these things, but if you ever talk to her, she will tell you that it has been life changing for her. The thing is, this is possible for just about anybody because she is not the only example I have from my career of being able to do some amazing things with people given the right time, care and application.
All the time we think of exercise as a way to look better. We can also think of exercise as a way to feel and perform better on a daily basis and carry a better quality of life forward through the years. To me this is the most powerful thing about exercise. It can make things possible that you previously thought weren’t possible. Maureen invested her time and effort into getting stronger and better and trusted in the process. If you’re looking for results over time, this is really what you need to do. I hope that you spread this story around and let anyone in your life know that anything can be improved given the right application. It just takes time, effort, and proper progression. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to let me know. I’m also happy to put you in contact with Maureen if you would like to hear her story directly.
Take care of yourself and your body and never take anything for granted. Your life can change in an instant, but you can also make it better if you choose to.