I feel the most beautiful when I am active. Whether it is an hour spent riding my road bike, exercising a horse, or taking a walk, I simply enjoy moving my body and having space to think –or not think. But for over a year and a half, I have not had this refuge of physical activity.
Beginning in February of 2018, I went through a series of physical injuries. First, I developed debilitating plantar fasciitis while studying abroad in Ecuador. I was unable to walk for two months; I had to lay in my bed, sit in chairs, and taxi-ride myself to classes. I sat out on several social events, trips, and even eating lunches because I was unable to stand or walk without pain. Instead, I read; spent time with a select, sedentary group of people; and played music. It was not the semester I had planned, to say the least.
While my mind explored its creative, more artistic side, my body was able to recover. I slowly gained more mobility as I tried everything I could to heal faster. In June, I had planned a trip to Peru with two friends– prepaid and booked. With Machu Picchu being an obvious destination, I needed to be ready to do a fair amount of hiking. And luckily, I healed relatively quickly. I was able to walk, and properly hike, come June. But I was weak, having lost a substantial amount of fitness and muscle after a total of 4 months of zero physical activity.
It was awkward to be in this weaker body; it no longer ‘listened to me’. My hips felt frozen and everything ached. I felt like I lived inside a creaky, old house. For three weeks, I walked and hiked through Peru, uncomfortably aware of my physical weaknesses. I knew one day I would feel better. Yet, that day felt painfully far away, some distant future that I may never reach.
Then, I injured my foot again. After one night of wearing heels to a friend’s party, I found myself limping around the ABC island of Aruba. Once again, I had already planned an entire summer of travel, Aruba being the second of five countries I was visiting. Perhaps naively, I made the decision to push on with an injured foot. Somehow, I’d make it work.
Injured While Traveling
Throughout the 3 months on the road, I developed little tricks for managing my pain. Whenever my foot hurt, I bought two cold beers and used one to roll out my injured foot. The other I would drink while in a park or an outdoor bar. I became very familiar with South American liquor stores, pubs, and canned beer collections. In the mornings, I did stretches. And at every chance I got, I rolled out and massaged my foot. My backpack was filled with NSAIDs, golf balls, and orthopedic inserts.
Yet it still hurt– every damn day.
My injury continued to limit my every action. I remember being in a port city in Northern Chile, trying to find a specific restaurant. My foot was aching—throbbing—that day. The pain incrementally rose as I continued searching. When I realized that I was lost, I panicked. I didn’t have the luxury to be lost. Every second I spent walking while in pain was more damage I was causing. Each minute of activity had to have a purpose. I still had two months of traveling to go.
As my anxiety rose, my thoughts spun to the worst—permanent damage to my foot, never being the same again, always being stuck in this vicious cycle. I dropped to the ground, sat on the cracked sidewalk, and waited. Waited for a taxi, a person, anything or anyone that could help me. And then I cried.
Chile | Cuba | Colombia
This cycle continued every two weeks. I would survive on my foot, pushing through the pain and managing the problems, until my mind could no longer remain resilient. I would start believing the worst, the fear that I would never be athletic again, that I could never run or jump or properly walk again. And then I would cry.
After a few minutes of wallowing in my sorrows, I would remind myself—this experience of being injured while traveling was changing me. It was building me up as a person. One day, I would be healthy. There would come a time when my body would work as I want it to, as I remember it working and feeling. When that day came, I would recall what it felt like to have this ‘broken body’. In this distant future, I would genuinely appreciate and care for my body. I vowed to never treat it poorly again.
That day did come, but only after another year of injuries.
Back In The US
My muscle imbalances and months of compensation led to a torn hamstring in October (and again in December) of 2018. Then I strained my back in April 2019 due to a poorly executed cartwheel on a still-recovering hamstring. Each injury seemed more painful than the last, limiting my life more and more. Yet despite the growing decline in my mobility, I felt my resilience rising, expanding. Out of necessity, I was becoming stronger in my mind and spirit. I was only waiting for my body to catch up.
My Body Now
A year and a half later, I have not properly ridden a road bike or horse. I still live in slight fear of re-injuring my body. So, I have put these passions on the back burner. But I am once more in control of my body. It does what I ask it to, moving like a well-oiled machine. I can go for a walk, swim in the ocean, and lose myself in an activity. And it has never felt so damn good to be in my own skin. This experience has taught me, more than anything, that my body demands and deserves proper attention and care.
On My Body As a Teenager
I realize now that I lacked the ability to listen and care for my body in part because of my mindset as a teenager. I remember growing up and being deeply critical of my body. It was never enough: not fit enough, thin enough, or athletic enough. I pushed it to its limits on a frequent basis and cared for it only so that I could exercise more and look a certain way. Believing that ‘pain was gain’, I consistently overrode any feelings of discomfort. And this mechanism of over-riding pain was my biggest challenge throughout my recovery. I was unable to tell the difference between pain, soreness, strain, and an effective exercise. I pushed through it all, and my body pushed back at me. My injuries demanded that I listen, rather than dictate.
I had lost my ability to listen to my body because I routinely expected too much from it. Additionally, I did not appreciate it for all the wonderful things it had accomplished for me– what it enabled me to do. It carried me through 12 years of competitive showjumping. It walked me through thousands of miles, often in horrible footwear, from the cliffs of Ireland to the mountains of California. It sustained almost a decade of high-heels and late nights. And it performed in every workout class, gym activity, and sport that I put it through. I asked a lot of my body, and it delivered without fail for 22 years. When it finally ‘barked back’, it was my turn to listen.
Now I see how difficult it can be to truly listen to my body and properly rest it. This experience showed me how my faults of pushing through pain and thinking the worst exacerbated my issues. But in the end, I am eternally grateful for the past year and a half.
These injuries changed me as a person. I developed new interests, hung out with different people, and grew to see the world, and my body, anew. My reality has been directly altered because of my injuries.
I now appreciate my body and treat it accordingly. I refused to look in the mirror and pick it apart. I assess my body before I select my day’s activity and/or exercise, making sure I do something to increase the wellbeing of my body. This process forced me to step into myself and listen to what my needs are, outside of any wellness bias claim.
Because it does not matter if HIIT is the best way to increase aerobic fitness or my friend wants to go on a canyon run. The fact is, my body is not ready. It is my duty to give it what it needs, rather than demand that it conforms to the current exercise or body-type trends. In the end, I feel happier and healthier with this shift. My priority is simple and pointed: to preserve my body’s functionality so that it can carry me through decades of adventures.
I never feel more beautiful than when I can pick up and go, with no questions and no prep. The pure freedom I feel when I am entrenched into an activity is a key characteristic of who I am. And I want to preserve this quality about me for as long as I can.
Why Do You Exercise?
So I ask you, why do you exercise? Are your activities truly empowering you, bringing you happiness and strength internally as well as externally? Or are you exercising simply for the high? Maybe to look a certain way? And how will these choices impact your body later on in life?