I’ve recently had direct experience with a concept called “self-limiting exercise.” This term was introduced years ago by Gray Cook, a well known physical therapist, lecturer and author. According to Cook, self-limiting exercise “requires mindfulness and an awareness of movement, alignment, balance and control. Self-limiting exercise requires engagement.” Think the polar opposite of cranking on an idiot-proof weight-lifting machine or sitting on an exercise bicycle while reading the latest hit romance novel. A great example of a self-limited exercise is running barefoot. Without shoes on, the runner gets immediate feedback from sensory neurons in her foot when she over strides or strikes the ground heel first. The feedback is, “ouch, don’t do that,” and she immediately corrects. But any exercise that imposes natural obstacles and requires technical attention is self-limiting. When form breaks down, the exercise must be stopped, or else bad things happen.
My current “natural obstacle” is a herniated disk between L5-S1 in my low back. I was stupid and lifted a heavy, water-logged raft onto a dock at a weird angle. Then, just to further prove my complete idiocy, I proceeded to carry a heavy basket full of wet towels up a hill to the house. At that point, my back was screaming bloody murder, and I couldn’t bend over. This was a few of months ago and I’m almost healed, but man, have I been knocked over the head with the concept of self-limitation!
One would think after an injury like mine, I would rest my back. And I did for a couple of weeks because I literally couldn’t do anything other than walk…slowly…at first. But, thinking it was just a back strain, as soon as the pain relented a bit, I eased back into jogging (no problem) and then weight training (BIG mistake). The dumbbell rows kicked my ass, and I was back to square one–walking slowly. At this point, I realized perhaps I had been a bit premature and promised myself (and others) that I would cool my jets and rest.
Then I had to blow an FEV1. As you know, pulmonary function testing requires major effort from every single muscle from the bottom of the pelvis to the tiny muscles of facial expression. In the middle of the “Keep blowing…keep blowing…come on….a little longer” (you know the drill), my entire back contracted into a huge knot with the density of the universe just prior to the Big Bang. Yes, it hurt like hell and my score was pathetic. I know what you are thinking: “What was she thinking?” Well, I didn’t have a choice. It was for a certain research study in which I may or may not be a subject and about which I cannot speak.
Then came the MRI and the diagnosis, and the beginning of my very mindful manner of movement. Here is what I have learned from this experience: My body is boss, not my brain. I wanted to swing a kettlebell so badly…they were taunting me from their home in my garage. But I couldn’t even pick up the lightest one I own without major pain. I actually had a back spasm from picking up my month supply of colistin from the Kaiser pharmacy. How embarrassing! And how extremely humbling.
So for the last month, my badass routine has been a daily dog walk, followed by some planks and hip bridges. Of course, I’ve been deathly afraid of losing strength and wasting away into a waif-like creature, not to mention junk accumulating in my lungs. But, alas, this did not happen. In fact, this period of actually listening to my body tell me what to do (and what not to do) has provided a much needed break from lifting. I’ve lost exactly one pound (and this was probably due to a miscalculation of the enzyme requirement for a bacon cheeseburger yesterday).
Back at the gym now, I’m slowly getting back in the saddle, swinging a very light kettlebell, doing some easy Turkish Get Ups, and body weight exercises. The squat rack is beckoning, but I am not tempted yet. My PT has cleared me to do “whatever doesn’t hurt.” Sounds like that means self-limiting exercises. Lesson learned.