Slow and Steady Wins the Race

by Hannah the Zebra

I’ve been talking a lot about fitness, and how we can try to stay fit and healthy when the very nature of our disease means that we’re not healthy. We depend upon blood donors to stay alive and even the smallest, random infection can lay us low for days, or worse, put us in the hospital on IVs. But we have to work to stay as healthy as we can, or we are even more prone to succumbing to a viral or bacterial  illness. I’ve talked before about managing our limited energy, trying to stay tuned in to our bodies and not overdoing it, trying to be careful about how much we schedule in a day, and trying to rest when we need to rest, even when we really want to get just one more thing done, like a “normal” person.

But lately, I’ve talked more about how we can systematically build up our strength. One of my barriers to this is that if I’ve done a lot during the day, and am exhausted, I think, “Well, I don’t need to exercise today, right? I mean, I’ve done a  lot, and I’m exhausted!”

Here’s the thing I’m learning, though. Scurrying around, squirrel like, from one thing to another all day is not the same as exercise. Sure, we use muscles doing things like lifting grocery bags, taking care of laundry, etc, but it’s not the same as targeted exercise.

Using grocery bags as an example, carrying them inside is not the same as using barbell weights to strengthen our arms and shoulders, no matter how much we wish it was. In fact, using the weights on a regular basis enables us to carry in the groceries without getting as exhausted doing so, because we’ve built up those muscles in our shoulders and back. My small step philosophy: If you hate using weights, follow the advice one of my nurses gave me a few years ago, and use them while you are watching a show. (Or my favorite, while you are listening to music.) You won’t mind them nearly as much. And don’t start out with the heavy ones.

A couple of years after my first hospitalization post-diagnosis, I had lost so much muscle mass that my regular 2 lb weights felt like they weighed 20 lbs. That’s not an exaggeration. So I tracked down a sporting goods store that carried ½ lb weights (which by itself was a huge effort back then), went in (also a huge effort), and asked them where their weights were. The sales clerk took me over to the display, and I picked up the half pounders, one in each hand, and was pleased. The clerk, trying to be helpful, suggested that if I wanted something lighter than the 2 lb weights I had at home, that I go for the 1 pounders because the ½ pounders were so light it would be like lifting nothing. I told him that I was going to purchase both the ½ lb weights and the 1 lb weights, but that I needed to start with the ½ pounders because I had been extremely ill, and even the half pounders were going to be a challenge. He seemed to mean it when he said he was sorry that I had been so ill, and that he hoped the weights would help to build up my strength. (Note here: You often can only find ½ lb weights in the children’s exercise section. They were so small my hand barely fit in the bar between the ends.)

Several days later I started to use the half pound weights. I found I could do 5 repetitions of several exercises without completely wiping myself out. That was my goal: weights that I would be able to use that would make me tired, but not wipe me out. I worked at upping my repetitions and number of exercises, until I was ready to graduate to the 1 lb weights, and eventually get back to my 2 lb weights. I might eventually reach 3 lbs, but at the moment I’m happy with 2. When a routine gets easy, I add more repetitions and/or more exercises.

You don’t have to be a fitness nut to do this, and you don’t have to think of it as fun. I can assure you that my reaction is definitely not, “Oh goody, now I get to use my weights!” But I love what the process enables me to do: lift a box that needs to be moved and not have to wait for one of my adult kids to be around, carry in the heavy groceries without having to lie down for a half hour afterwards, or lift a toddler into a car seat.

And remember that building up endurance and strength takes awhile even for someone young and healthy, and I am neither. So all of this requires patience, something I don’t always have a lot of. But the rewards are worth it; I can work toward regaining little portions of my life, here and there. And that is something I used to think I would never be able to do.