Returning to exercise safely & injury free (or “You’ll get there in the end”)

Returning to physical activity is like making a camp fire. Making a camp fire means understanding fire’s nature, and acting appropriately.

How to make a nice roaring camp fire:

Start with a tiny spark from a flint or a wood drill.
If you add the spark to a log, it’s extinguished right away. If you blow too hard on the spark, that will overwhelm the spark as well.

The spark must be carefully cultivated with an understanding of its nature.

The successful spark goes on dry moss, maybe sawdust. Then more sparks form, then you can add more moss. Now, maybe a small wood shaving, then another. More moss, then a small twig. Never large pieces at this stage. Some gentle air from the breath is good now.

Then add several twigs, maybe some more moss. Then a bigger piece of wood, then large sticks. Now blow hard as possible, stoking the heart of the fire.

Now its ready for logs that will achieve the desired function of keeping warm.

This whole process totally fails if you push the envelope too soon. Yes, fire needs wood and yes it needs air, but these can smother the sparks if used at the wrong moment.

If you judge the small spark as being useless, you will never get the benefit from it. A large, warm fire has very humble beginnings but the beginnings exist and have power to develop.

Translate this analogy to exercise –

The goal of the first week or more is to simply get used to moving without triggering pain. Let the body be gently reintroduced to gravity and perhaps the kind of activity you intend to carry on with.

The goal is not to go for endorphins, stress relief, weight loss or other athletic performance. Get this goal correct and you are on the quickest path to victory. Anything else is risky.

Many people are hurting themselves by judging their own small spark of capacity to be useless and either overdoing it or deciding to do nothing.

I once had a patient only able to do 5 seconds of a shoulder qigong exercise I prescribed. This was case where workers comp covered work on the ankle but not the preexisting shoulder issue so she asked for a self-care protocol. But at 6 seconds, severe pain kicked in. This small functionality made her upset. She felt useless, thinking that 5 seconds was a fail. I recommended that she just do the 5 seconds. She was convinced that 5 seconds was completely pointless and we spent some time talking about this. She agreed to try the 5 seconds every day. After all, at 5 seconds at least there was no pain. In a few days she could do 10 seconds. In 2 weeks she was doing 10 minutes twice a day, and this finally took her into the range where the exercise made the shoulder feel pain free.

A more commonly used example I use for very overweight people over 75, who are in recovery from surgery or prolonged illness. I start these patients with 5 minutes per day on a playground swing. Sounds almost silly, but it moves a lot of lymph around and gets the body warmed up. From this innocuous beginning, within 6 months many can walk several miles a week or return to a keep fit class.

The moral is this –

It is totally irrelevant how small your abilities are when you start. Start where you are at, learn to enjoy the fact you have that much function at all. Development of your performance will then come without injury and with a deeper understanding of your own body’s needs.