Not Working Out: A Study

Hey folks. It’s been a while. But not because I’ve been super busy — No. Not at all. In fact, I have been not busy in a way that I never thought possible to not be busy. But more on that in a moment.

Here are a few things to know about this post:

  1. The format and content are a little different from our regularly scheduled programming. (YOU GONNA BE ABLE TO HANDLE THAT?)
  2. I recently had ankle surgery, so my fitnessing took a backseat for a while (as did this blog) and it’s time to lay out some thoughts about my fitnessless month
  3. Just because it was a fitnessless month doesn’t mean it was a useless month. There are some takeaways here.

So. Having gotten the opportunity to experience the effects of being in recovery and not working out for a month, let’s go over the very controlled, scientific, this-is-my-experience-and-therefore-probably-true-for-everybody discoveries about muscles, well-being, and exercise.

The Surgery

To give a little back story, this was a surgery from an ongoing running injury (an overuse injury, not an acute injury from any particular incident) while I was training last summer for the 2012 marathon; at first it was thought to be tendonitis, then a different kind of tendonitis, then a ligament tear, and finally, ended up being some muscle and ligament tears and a bone spur, which caused extra fluid and a cyst, which prevented posterior tib tendonitis from ever healing. So. There it is. I got ’em all repaired at once, making a glorious scalene triangle of incisions around my right ankle and foot. Now. On to the discoveries.

Strength and Muscles

Muscles learn really quickly. When you exercise, they build up day by day and learn to get stronger and stronger. On the flip side, when you don’t, they learn that they aren’t really gonna be needed right now and they chill and scale things back for a while. I went from working out an average of 10-12 hours a week to being in a reclined position 95% of the time, so my muscles were sent a pretty big message. After the first week, I didn’t notice much of anything (thanks vicodin!) different in my strength or muscle mass — except, of course, for the frankenstein ankle (herein referred to as frankenstankle) that had just undergone tendon, muscle, and ligament repair, had a cyst and fluid removed, and had a BONE SHAVED DOWN. A major triumph used to be completing a 24″ box jump, but now was standing with equal weight on both feet; it took weeks for my frankenstankle to be able to support any weight at all (a super unsettling feeling), and I would legitimately break a sweat trying to get the various muscles, tendons, and ligaments to respond in some way (now I know why people in movies pour sweat in physical therapy sessions — MOVIES ARE SO REAL).

As I became slightly more mobile — getting around on crutches and my one good leg, doing one-legged squats to sit down and get up — I was able to see a definite difference between the two legs. The injured one was skinnier (and squishier) than the other, having definitely lost muscle while the good leg did all the work to compensate for its lazy ass. Not only was the frankenstankle a mass of muscles and such that needed to relearn how to DO THEIR JOB, but now the accompanying leg muscles were beginning to follow suit and atrophy. Neat!

HOWEVER: The more that I tried the smallest, most pathetic exercises (e.g. putting my foot flat on the floor, flexing it halfway, etc), the stronger my ankle got. It did, actually, begin the process of relearning how to do its goddamn job. GOOD JOB, FRANKENSTANKLE. But a takeaway here: your muscles are listening. They will change if you tell them to. But you have to tell them to. ALSO, the more you generally exercise, and work your muscles, the faster they will respond in the event you’re injured or sick. My doctor (who effing rocks) has noted many times how much faster I’m recovering because I’m an “athlete” (which I find a hilarious term to describe someone who can’t throw a ball in any specific direction). So, get strong, you guys. You never know when you’ll need it.

Mood and Energy Level

Boy oh boy is exercise a mood lifter. Not being able to exercise — or get my body moving in any way, really — made me a TOTAL GRUMP MONSTER. Just the worst. I felt like I never fully woke up. Small movements became, like, SO ANNOYING because I just didn’t even want to DO anything anymore, cause why BOTHER. Does this mean exercise will make you happier in your life? I tend to think so, not just for the endorphins, but the self-efficacy and health benefits. Does it mean not exercising makes you a downer? It did for me! I avoided calls from friends, turned down invites to hang, and stopped writing cool stuff about fitnessing for you guys to read. My body just felt tired, and my brain followed suit.

Food and Eating

Ugh. Every day was just one big shame hangover. Since my energy was low, my outlook slipped into “Well it’s not like I can be healthy anyway, so, might as well eat bullshit everyday,” which is pretty much what I did. And then that bullshit food made me feel worse, because even though it tastes good for a second, it almost immediately turns into this weighted, energy-sucking laziness, perpetuating the cycle even more. Barely moving my body + a million calories = giving zero fucks about anything. It’s remarkable how much correlation there is between exercising and eating healthy; doing one just naturally makes you want to do the other. But if you’re only doing one, it’s harder than doing both. REMEMBER THAT YOU GUYS. Eating healthy is EASIER when you also exercise. It just is.

Slow Climb

Now for some better news. This past week, a month after surgery, I was able to go to the gym and do exercises that did not require ankle use (meaning, VERY limited, pretty much just upper body). But, even after just throwing together some bench presses and bicep curls and the like, I left there with a little more (careful) spring in my step. I was able to get my heart rate up for a bit, and remind my muscles that they exist and are needed. It’s not the rigorous plan that I’m used to, but it’s SOMETHING. It gave me a sense of accomplishment. And it’s already made me want to get back to healthier eating. Don’t underestimate the power of a baby step. Just because you can’t do 100% doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all. I’m operating at about 15% of my usual fitnessing, but you know what? I’m twice as productive now than when I wasn’t exercising at all.

Anyway, I would say the overall takeaway for me has been that a little physical activity goes a long way — and not to get bogged down in what you CAN’T do. Because it isn’t forever. I had a month of being the unhealthiest person alive, but that doesn’t mean that’s what my lifestyle has become. It was just a phase brought on by necessary circumstances. In a couple of months I’ll be able to try running again (for the first time in 18 months), burpees and I will be reunited, and I’ll be a regular in boot camp classes again. But for now, I’m just doing whatever I can, because really that’s all anybody can do. SO ANYWAY WHAT’S BEEN GOING ON WITH YOU?

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1 comment
  1. Russ said:

    Thanks for the update, I was wondering why my life was not blessed with fitness updates… now I know. Keep pushing that 15% and you’ll be back to 105% in no time… Congrats on the upswing in recovery.

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