I just got back from the gym after doing my whole-body workout. This workout is part of my ongoing personal therapy, something my physiatrist* told me is more important than going to sessions with an actual therapist. And I thought perhaps I should share some tips on daily habits (if not longer-term; we’ll get to that in a moment) that will help you out a lot in your rehab journey.
But first, I just wanted to get something off my chest and say: To the creepy man doing leg press for far too long at the gym, yes, I notice you staring. Please stop before I drop my dumbbell and point at you in slow motion.
At first I was reluctant to be so negative in such a public post, but then I realized that would be hypocritical of me. Why? Because I prattle on and on about how people with disabilities are just that — people, “warts and all,” and to pretend like I don’t have that cattier, biting side would be to misrepresent myself. How else would you know I was for real? This is a blog, after all, and I think I should be at liberty to share my feelings, which generally tend to be encouraging. So sometimes, that acidic side to me will emerge. I also don’t want you to get the wrong impression that I’m some superhuman who never falls off the wagon and mechanically goes through, daily, all the forms of therapy discussed on this site. No, I absolutely still am flawed and part of my motivating you is just telling you things I need to remind myself of every day, too.
Anyway, so I’m aware that doing wrist supination exercises might appear stareworthy to the occasional creepster hanging out at the gym, but let me tell you what. Part of everyone’s workout regimen is made up of odd exercises that specifically target their problem areas. Can I help it that my problem area at this moment is the pathway within my body that runs from my brain and down my arm? Is that so different from trying to crunch a “spare tire” away?
I’d almost rather you ask me upfront, “Excuse me, miss, but why are you flipping that dumbbell back and forth like that?” so I could give you a straight answer. It would certainly be less rude than staring. The entire. Time.
All right, so, good habits. As we all know, rehab is a constant, seemingly endless process. Just like self-improvement or education, healing is something ongoing and, rather than being a means to an end, is also a way to maintain your present state. I mean, it’s not just rehab; people in general are always physically active (some less than they ought be, for sure, but we all have to move every day) and to stay healthy must preserve a certain lifestyle.
This is essentially what a collection of good habits are: a lifestyle. If you form the right habits and phase out the wrong ones (it is possible, you know. As long as you emphasize what you want to be doing, what you don’t want to do eventually fades away), you then form the lifestyle you want to have.
Now, I personally believe that rehab is best done holistically. What does that mean, exactly? To me, it means coming at the source of your injury from all possible angles — treating the body as an entire, completely interconnected organism, because that’s precisely what it is. You know, if you walk with a slightly incorrect gait for long enough, you might start developing problems on the good leg after awhile? Or, if you injure your big toe, you’ll end up throwing off the alignment running from your ankle to your knee to your hip. That’s a lot of ailments from one seemingly tiny injury. Treat your entire body well, and it will thank you in spades.
Sleep. Make sure to get plenty of rest. Your brain tends to be very well protected — instinctively, we all feel a little uncomfortable when a stranger touches our heads, and this is a biological mechanism. This discomfort we feel is due to the fact that we instinctively keep our heads away from harm’s way. When lovers rest their foreheads against one another, it signals their underlying trust for each other.
So because the head is typically quite well protected and stays away from collision or any other type of tactile harm, also remember that if you’ve had a brain injury, you’ve got to further protect it from the inside. That is, after all, the source of your problem. Obviously you can’t just reach in there whenever you want, but make sure you clear the time you need to get the rest you require.
My seizure threshold lowers from lack of sleep, so it is absolutely mandatory that I sleep at least nine hours every night. (Left to my own devices, I will sleep for twelve.) Don’t let others tease you into thinking you need less than you do. Their sleeping only four hours a night will catch up to them, too (don’t even get me started) — but with your medical history, do what’s best for your healing and make your sleep a priority. Make it part of your therapy regimen. Not everyone will respect it, but stand firm. If you’re like me and susceptible to sleep-deprivation-inflicted seizures (a residual effect of my injury), usually mentioning the S-word will shut them up nicely.
Work out. As my doctor pointed out, regular exercise trumps PT and OT time at the hospital. So clear the time in your schedule to go to the gym on a regular basis. I generally try to hit the gym six days a week because my focus right now is on my rehab. If you work or go to school, it will be harder for you. But it’s possible, believe me; I achieved this as a New Year’s resolution in 2009: As long as you intentionally set aside time to go to the gym, you will be able to form the habit. My schedule during my last year of school looked like this: Monday through Thursday I had class. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I had to go to the gym after classes and before dinner. Tuesdays and Thursdays I scheduled paid therapy sessions with my therapist. And voilà, that was five days a week while full-timing it as a student (undergrad, to be fair, but still). Make the time. You won’t regret it!
I’d like to also point out a fairly obvious fact that most people who claim they don’t have time forget: every person on Earth has twenty-four hours every day. It’s what they do with those hours that make the difference. Even the most prolific writers, dedicated athletes, or successful people have exactly the same amount of time as you or I do. Difference is, they’re more productive with it. And believe you me, time management is still a tricky little rascal in my life.
Declare an hour or so a day to going to the gym — or staying at home to do your exercise program, whatever works for you — and do this every day for twenty-one days straight. See how you feel afterward. Chances are, you’ll continue this way, and you won’t look back on your time shaking your head thinking you should have been consistent — because you already were!
Eat well. What goes into your body nourishes your body. I’m not going to bore you with all the health-food hype you’ve already heard about throughout your life. Not even going to mention weight loss. That is, you think, separate from the rehab journey, right? Er . . . is it?
The healthier your body is, the better your healing process is going to be. If you put in good stuff, you’ll get out good stuff. You’ll feel better, not low and lethargic after your third batch of fries, have more energy, and detox yourself. And you’ll probably live longer, and better, too.
On an aside, you should probably also look into vitamins. And I don’t mean the cheap once-a-day kind you get at the supermarket. Those vitamins are like ingesting absolutely nothing, which you paid money for for no reason, because they are stuffed with fillers that pretty much eat away the very nutrients you are eating them for. It’s like eating a plus and a minus, which gets you a zero.
(Update, 25 April 2010: The newest issue of Cosmopolitan backs me on this — there’s a small article on the need for getting on vitamins and supplements.)
Get on proper vitamins — they’ll look kind of scary because there will be a lot of them. But they’ll give you energy, better health, and in the case of omega-3 (fish oil), some are even beneficial to your brain health which I personally think won’t hurt. According to the new Amen book on brain health and optimization, whatever is good for your heart is also good for your brain — so it’s a 2-in-1 win/win!
Just don’t forget to eat them after you’ve already eaten a full meal. Even I occasionally have a slip and spend about ten minutes with an upset stomach dry-heaving and regretting my life. Don’t do it before you eat!
If you don’t know where to get the real stuff, contact me and I’ll hook you up. Typically proper vitamins are not sold at supermarkets but are available via specialized vendors. My daily regimen includes:
1 multivitamin, 1 multimineral, 1 phytonutrient (2x)
1 omega-3 (3x)
2 conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) for lean muscle retention and fat reduction (3x)
1 calcium-magnesium-vitamin D supplement (1x)
3 heart health supplements just in case (1x)
Do the research on the benefits of proper vitamins. They’re like preemptive health insurance. Some people argue that the body can only absorb so much at a time, so a lot of it gets flushed out of your system, which is true — but it explains why you take multiple doses of certain things. Try getting on a vitamin regimen for ten days and see how you feel. And quiz yourself on your vitamin 411.
My best friend works for a company that specializes in magnesium research. Magnesium therapy is yet another arena we will explore with you at a later date (perhaps I can convince her to write a guest article?), but it has some pretty impressive results, and there’s a pretty amazing potential for significant healing with it. I read once that it’s like 72% of Americans are magnesium-deficient. There are books about magnesium and how it can help prevent myriad health disorders, like heart disease, stroke (!), osteoperosis, or diabetes to name a few. Check our noteworthy reads for references to look at if you like. Additionally if you can get your hands on a container of magnesium chloride (not sulfate, what they usually throw in with epsom salts, because the body doesn’t absorb it as well), soak yourself with some in the bath.
This way, you are also treating your body well from the inside. The benefits will manifest themselves outwardly, believe me! Vitamins will also safeguard you somewhat against the poor eating choices that will (hopefully only) occasionally occur. Another nice plus: you won’t get colds anymore, either. 😎
Avoid unnaturally-colored cheeses (like cheddar that’s orange, which is incidentally that color in a traditional attempt at patriotism — apparently Americans began dyeing cheese orange to differentiate between American and British cheeses back when we were revolting — but completely unnecessary today). Those are extraneous chemicals! Blegh.
Cut out as much sugar as you can from your diet; if you must use it, opt for cane sugar — that off-white, slightly brownish sugar that’s sweet anyway but naturally so. Sugar is pretty much toxic to the body and you should avoid it as much as possible. When it comes to salt, reach for the sea salt. Marine salt isn’t processed and is much better for you than the normal stuff they set out at restaurants.
Speaking of which, try to eat at home as often as possible. This way, you see exactly what is going into your meals and can monitor the stuff that’s worse for you. And you can properly control the portion sizes! (A serving of meat is about the size of your fist.)
Know the common food myths. You know how people are always smack-talking avocados for their fat content and eggs for their cholesterol? Avocados have a lot of monounsaturated fat — the good kind you do want in your body, for your heart — and eggs not only lower your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), but help to raise your HDL (the good kind). Read about them here. I’d like to also add that cholesterol, like certain vitamins (D, for example), is produced by your own body and not added thanks to food. I get a lot of interesting information on food from my physical therapist and also from the “Nutrition Diva,” whom you can check out here. (On a totally different aside, just FYI — wash your eggs with hot water quickly before you break ’em. Eggs are actually sterile on the inside; the risk of salmonella only comes from their dirty shells, as hens will have pooped on them before the eggs were collected and packaged up to sell. If you clean the shells, you could even safely eat the entire egg raw — which some serious athletes do by throwing them into their shakes. That idea gives most of us the heebie-jeebies, but I thought it was important to know.)
Now, I’m not sure about the studies on this, but some Americans berate me for my habit of eating on a Mediterranean schedule — because I learned to cook in Italy and nearly my entire personal culture of eating habits originates from there, I continue to live that lifestyle.
Italians don’t typically eat dinner until about nine PM. There are whispers floating around that you’re not supposed to eat after seven in the evening. But given that the Mediterraneans tend to live longer than Americans, I’m thinking it’s really okay. Just don’t eat the bad stuff. Bad stuff late is probably worse than bad stuff, period, so opt for the healthier and lighter foods at night. (17 May 2010, update: Aha! Check out this article that backs me on this.)
Open your mind. If you stick exclusively to conventional Western medical advice, you’re limiting yourself to only one hemisphere’s conclusive methods. Let yourself explore also lesser known techniques, which the West traditionally rejects by claiming a “lack of research,” but as I see it, Western mentality is much like the left brain: analytical, logical, compartmental. The Eastern approach is a bit more abstract, associative, intuitive. And no one would rightfully argue that we don’t need both hemispheres. 😉
Keep a log; maintain your vision. This personally works for me. If I have something visual to refer to that keeps a record of my progress, it motivates me to keep going. If it’s enough to just write charts down in a notebook, then do that. I’m about to create a large calendar that I can X off on a daily basis to hang above my desk. In addition to the cold hard facts, I’m keeping it “fun” with motivational quotes, words, and pictures so I can physically see what it is I want. If you’re not artistic, it’s okay. Use photos and write things in markers. (Stay tuned for a photo of said calendar.)
Routinely grade yourself. After keeping a daily log of your activities, each week pick a day to review the past seven days and give yourself a progress report. This way, you can see if you’re improving, plateauing, or falling off. Then make appropriate tweaks to your schedule.
Remember that every large endeavor seems overwhelming at first. By breaking down your goals into smaller, more manageable pieces, it shrinks the overwhelm. Challenge yourself in small spurts (i.e., two weeks of CIMT) and reward yourself afterwards. Know that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
To our healing,
*Not to be mistaken for psychiatrist (a psychoanalyst, dealing in mental health), a physiatrist is a rehab doctor.