What if I can't do anything?
I'm writing this blog after five weeks of a ten week training hiatus to put this gently-injured body back together. I'm allowed to do some workouts, but not allowed to do my favorites like american ninja warrior, adult gymnastics, and generally bouncing around like a bored toddler. It's weird to sit around so much.
Week one felt like a nice training break. Week two felt like luxury.
Weeks three through five have been an escalation of anxiety on every level. My appetite is completely fucked. My digestive functions from tip to tail have slowed down. Not only am I sluggish but my brain feels like the squirrel who searches interminably for the acorns he hid.
Focusing at work has been harder and my recall is bad. I try to dig up a word or a thought and all I can find is brainworms and mindtrash. (Brainworms and mindtrash is going to be the title of my forthcoming epic poetry collection.)
But the part of me that is really blackening is my confidence. What will I be able to do when I get back? What if it's nothing? The same questions people ask me as a trainer, whether they have been out for five weeks or five decades.
It's not going to be nothing. It's never going to be nothing. I'm going to be able to do things when I go back, and so will you.
But the bugs in my head are alive. They have been crawling through all of my fragile networks, chittering away, gnawing on memories of past successes and spitting all over my future plans. How does anxiety do this anyway? I'll think about rehabbing my neck injury and within seconds I'm wondering whether both cats will eat me when I die or just the fat one.
This blog is for anyone out there like me right now: depressed, antsy, feeling scared of loss and failure, conjuring all kinds of imaginary outcomes from unlikely future scenarios. And I don't just mean athletic people who are sidelined with injuries. This mindset can also plague anyone who wants to start working out regularly but doesn't know where to begin.
It's never going to be nothing. You will always be able to do something.
It's in times like these that Real Life Mia asks Trainer Mia for her opinion. Real Life Mia can be unreliable, but my trainer self is rock solid. She's an expert. Whenever I can't seem to get my brain right about body problems, I ask myself what Trainer Mia would tell her client in the same situation. And I know exactly what I would tell a client.
First of all, both your cats will eat you.
Second of all, your body is going to be fine.
The best part about being injured is that you can practice other health habits that you ignore, avoid, don't have time for, or don't even know about. We'll go through all of them, but today we're going to talk about mirrors. One of many cool things about the human body is that maintaining one part will have positive effects on another part. Some research has shown that exercising one arm when the other is immobilized can completely nullify the expected atrophy. Where the hell was this advice when I shattered my arm in seventh grade? That thing was thinner than all my excuses for skipping bridal showers.
This study took the immobilization concept one step further. They casted the left arm of their subjects and had them specifically train the wrist flexor muscles in the right arm for one month.
The controls saw a 20% loss of strength in the casted arm. The subjects? Flexor muscle strength, size, and thickness were all preserved, even though those muscles weren't being used. But that's not even the magic trick. The magic trick is that these qualities were ONLY preserved in the left wrist flexor muscles. None of the other muscles in the immobilized arm retained these characteristics.
So it's not just that some random strength can be preserved by exercise. Our bodies are so precisely calibrated that the act of specifically exercising the right wrist flexors will specifically affect the left wrist flexors. Holy shit! The brain is awesome! That's double the work in half the time! When the researchers were asked how this worked, they shrugged and said, "Fuck if we know?" (paraphrase) So fuck if I can tell you how it works either. I usually just say, "Science" when people ask me things and that settles it. So, this works by science.
The effect of neurologically training one body part by using another body part is called "mirroring." We mirror all the time. This is why there's no such thing as leg day or arm day or upper body day or back day or butt day or piriformis day or flexor digitorum longus day. (Stay tuned for a future blog about this.) You can't train one part of your body without affecting all the rest of it. For example, one study found that your arms got stronger if you trained your legs first (because training your enormous leg muscles releases a torrent of chemicals that then benefits your biceps.)
Health isn't confined to running and kale.
You can use mirroring to your advantage for more than just strength training a broken leg. Real life mirrors have been used brilliantly in pain treatments, notably by the brilliant neuroscientist, V.S. Ramachandran, who is fucking brilliant. (Read all of his books someday. Promise me you will?) Here is a short video of Ramachandran working with a phantom limb patient using mirrors. And while I'm entertaining you with psychology, here is a legendary mirror illusion called the Rubber Hand Illusion. You gotta watch this. Give three minutes and twelve seconds of your life to it. You won't regret it.
Similar studies have been done to help treat chronic pain in existing limbs too. If you've got an unexplained ache or pain, try this: Stand in front of a full-length mirror and very slowly move your grumpy body part through its pain-free range of motion. (It's important that this doesn't hurt.) Watch it closely the whole time. Spend several minutes watching, which will be boring AF so put on the new Taylor Swift album to keep you company. When your eyeballs (the governing system in the sensory body) actually see your elbow moving--and it doesn't hurt--it can act like a neurological reset. Essentially, you can use vision to remind your brain that your elbow can, in fact, move without pain. Will this work on severe arthritis? No. (As far as I know, but again, pain is just a construct of the brain soooo...) Can it work on old injuries/fascial problems/mixed signaling? Definitely.
Here's another neat mirroring trick. Watching other people's facial expressions stimulates all the same emotions in ourselves. If you see someone's face in pain you will feel the same pain, unless you're a serial killer. If you see joy in someone's face, you too will feel joy. So watch your favorite comedies or hang out with your funniest friends (social connection happiness bonus!) And if you see your own face expressing joy (great time to surf old albums or videos), your real-time joy response will be even stronger. Remember, health isn't confined to running or kale. Increasing the amount of happiness you feel in a day has been shown to improve health by an absurd degree.
For improved health, put on the new Taylor Swift album.
In a related idea, if you're feeling stressed or depressed, maybe do some curating (god I hate that word now. Thanks for ruining it, shitty marketing people) of your media consumption. You know how old fogies on CNN always talk about how video games these days are ruining our children? They might be right. This longitudinal study looked at TV watching outcomes. Teens who watched more than three hours of TV a day were far more likely to have violence issues later in life than teens who watched less than one hour per day (29% vs. 6%, respectively). They controlled for obvious factors like parental situation and safety of surroundings and yet the links remained. As for adults, research finds that binge watchers are strongly associated with the highest levels of depression and loneliness. I don't need to lecture about how awful social media is. It's easier to write than to do, but if you're struggling with any aspect of your health, getting out and away from all the screens is probably one of the smoothest pathways no matter what your final health goal is. Less sitting, less eye abuse, less emotional abuse, less time suck. A whole lot of dumpster fires come along with sitting and staring at screens.
All of this is to say (to myself!) that feeling like your injury is going to derail your body forever is an unfounded feeling. For one thing, there are a lot of other ways to treat yourself well. For another thing, giving in to the fear that your body is going to crumble beneath you is to deny credit to how physiologically awesome you are. If our bodies fell apart every time we got hurt, you think evolution would have stood for that? No. Those assholes got eaten.
All hail Gary Larson.
Your body will be fine. Health is more than exercise and nutrition. It's also meditation and sunscreen and being good-natured and family and sex and puppies and glitter and wearing seatbelts and not washing your hair all the time and drinking wine and drinking vodka and drinking beer and drinking gin.
I'll write up blogs on these to help give you new ideas. You can turn to them when your normal habits go abnormal. Remember, health, in the long term, is a boundless and shifting composite of things that make you happy. So whether you're sidelined or startlined, struggling with one aspect of health doesn't mean you'll struggle with all aspects of health. It also doesn't mean just start chugging a ton of gin in the name of health, but if that works for you please email me immediately.