On CrossFit, Chronic Pain & Aging
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.”
Important Note: The following essay is based on my story and is not medical advice. If you deal with chronic back pain, please see a medical professional. If you've got questions, please ask in the comments section. Onward.
I am continually amazed at how fast life can change without warning. When I injured my back in January 2016, I was surprised because I’d been feeling strong and healthy. I was also frightened because the pain was intense. I had a hard time walking around the house, showering, sleeping, and it was difficult to concentrate on work. I was concerned because this flare-up was prolonged and more intense than past episodes.
Since my flare-up lasted longer than normal, I made an appointment with my doctor. After a few exams and x-rays, she diagnosed me with mild arthritis in my lower back and degenerative disc disease.
I remember thinking: If this is mild, I don’t want to know what severe feels like!
After the diagnosis, I was angry, worried, and I felt betrayed by my body. I also felt grateful for a diagnosis because I’d dealt with chronic back pain for decades; having a diagnosis made me feel less crazy.
Furthermore, I was happy to have a comfortable place to convalesce. A few months before my injury, we moved out of our tiny house and into a small apartment. Our apartment has a bathtub, a washer and dryer, and I don't have to climb a ladder to get into my bed. Our tiny house is cozy, but it’s not comfortable being sick or injured in the little house because it lacks lovely amenities (like a bathtub).
After spending way too much time Googling potential healing modalities for my back, I decided to break up with Google. Instead, I started listening to my body and to the professionals that were trying to help me. I also began taking micro-actions. That’s a fancy way of saying, I took small steps toward a large goal—decreasing pain and managing my back issues over the long-run.
First, I took my doctor’s advice seriously. She referred me to a local physical therapist, and I followed up and made my first appointment (of many). He was so helpful and knowledgeable! I listened to his advice and did my prescribed back exercises consistently.
I knew that I had to keep moving—and that the flare-up would subside eventually. In the meantime, I tried to stay active. I moved like a turtle, but at least I was moving.
Other micro-actions I took included:
- Experimenting with my diet.
- Joining a swim team in Ashland, Oregon.
- Working less (which meant making less money) so that I could focus on my health. Without my partner’s support, this choice wouldn't have been possible.
- Buying a standing desk for work.
- Relying on friends and family for support and encouragement.
Interestingly, most of the steps followed a logical progression, and they didn’t happen all at once. Each micro-action took time, planning, and effort.
Continuing to build strength …
Two people introduced me to CrossFit—my cousin Aubrey and my friend Heather (who is an amazing athlete and a coach at CrossFit Northern Limits). Aubrey and Heather shared their CrossFit experiences online, which peaked my interest in the sport. Also, both ladies encouraged me to get my butt into the local gym.
If it weren't for Heather and Aubrey, I wouldn't have tried CrossFit because I wrongly assumed I'd hurt myself doing the sport. Thankfully, Aubrey offered me a balanced perspective of CrossFit.
She said, "As long as you find a good coach, and there are plenty, you'll excel at the sport and learn a lot about yourself. Besides, every movement in CrossFit is scalable."
As a side note, I’m drawn to stories of older athletes because I strive to emulate them as I age (think: movement, mobility, grit, and the desire to keep learning). People like Liz (72), George (94), and Betty and Ann (75 & 92) are hugely inspiring to me!
One year later …
On September 16, 2017, I celebrated my one-year anniversary at CrossFit Northern Limits. Going to the gym every day isn't sexy, and sometimes it feels like a slog. Some workouts are better than others, and working hard at the gym is hard work. There’s no getting around that fact.
I consistently attend class because:
- I aim to build physical and mental strength as I age.
- The learning opportunities are endless; especially when it comes to CrossFit movements, mobility, nutrition, etc.
- Small victories—like doing seven toes to bar in a row—motivates me to continue doing the work.
- Being surrounded by supportive coaches and fellow CrossFitters is inspiring and fun!
Building strength takes time, and it doesn't happen overnight. For example, my first back squat was with a 5 pound plastic pipe. Nine months later my one rep max was 140 pounds! This slow and steady progress reminds me of my experience with downsizing. Whether I'm simplifying my life or trying to build physical strength, taking tiny actionable steps over the long run is a winning strategy.
I know my health status could change in an instant—it's happened previously—and I don't take my strength or mobility for granted. I also know that taking care of my body and mind is essential to cultivating joy in my daily life. Regular exercise is one way I do that.
Interestingly, studies have shown that exercise can lower your risk of dementia, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, and more. BUT risk reduction isn’t a guarantee that I’ll avoid cancer, dementia, a stroke, or debilitating back pain. Physical fitness is essential to living my best life, but it isn’t a cure-all.
And last but not least, I turned 39-years-old on Monday, November 6, 2017. I love growing older, and I’m grateful for each day on planet Earth. Also, I feel stronger at 39 than I did at 29. I attribute my emotional and physical strength to simplifying my life, my gratitude practice, and to prioritizing my health. The last decade has been good to me, and I’m looking forward to ending it with a bang! I’m coming for you 40!
Rather than linking to articles and books in my essay, I made a list of resources for you to explore. Enjoy!
- The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread by Matt Bencke
- When Language Fails by Meghan
- Why I Bought a Standing Desk by Tammy Strobel
- The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn
- Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness by J.C. Herz
- The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes
- You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s Cheap) by Tammy Strobel