It’s the most important voice in the crowd.
by Sarah Hays Coomer
Our bodies have something to say. They are talking to us all the time. But if we aren’t listening, if we’re running the show from way up in our heads and disregarding the messages from below, we’re likely to end up with frozen shoulder, digestive issues, plantar fasciitis, food addiction, shingles, or whatever other somatic symptoms our bodies can throw at us to get our attention.
It’s a slippery slope. When our bodies cry out with aches and pains, or for simple touch or movement, if we don’t heed the call, we hover a long way from healing.
I take care of people’s bodies for a living. I’m the “pro” in the gym all day, helping my clients figure out how best to heal, but while I was distracted, trying to hear their messages and ignoring my own, my shoulder congealed into hardened cheese.
Sure, I went to physical therapy and did the exercises they assigned, but I also continued to lift heavy weights and hand them at awkward angles to my clients all day. I thought about going to acupuncture but never could find the time or money. I knew all kinds of treatments I should be trying, but didn’t make it a priority to get them done.
As I sit here, writing this passage, I am humbled by pain. The squeak has become a blaring siren. I wasn’t listening. It didn’t have to be this way, but here I am. Now I have to commit to healing like my life depends on it—because it does. My health and happiness depend on it. I can’t do anything without it hurting, and that’s not acceptable.
So when I’m talking about various ways to get our bodies in balance, please know that none of it is coming from up on a soapbox. I’m in this process with you, trying to heal my own thing. In my book, I dive in to everything from how we feed and strengthen our bodies to how we dress and rest them. We need options, lots of them, and we have to keep looking until we find some that work for each of us—with our unique bodies, ailments, and proclivities.
No outcome is guaranteed. Bodies aren’t math problems with definitive answers. They are delicate ecosystems that are constantly in the process of mending themselves, but they need as much reinforcement as they can get.
Why is it so difficult to support that natural equilibrium? Why is it so hard to remember to take care of ourselves? Because chips are delicious, and TV is distracting. Pills take the edge off, and capitulating to an injury feels safer than working to overcome it. Quick fixes are extremely seductive—until we wake up five years later and realize we are still in exactly the same situation, with exactly the same underlying conditions, plus fifteen pounds and a sore knee.
Give your mice a microphone by answering a few straightforward questions:
· Do you have any unexplained aches and pains hanging around?
· What about skin conditions, hair loss, or stomach problems?
· Are you sleeping better or worse than you used to?
· Are you more forgetful, distracted, or irritable?
· Do you have cravings for food or behaviors that make you feel worse afterward?
· Is there a time of day when fatigue, depression, or anxiety regularly show up?
· Was there a clear onset of these symptoms or did they sneak up on you over time?
Finding solutions to these problems is a long and winding road. My book has lots more suggestions, but the most straightforward advice I can give you is this:
1. Hear your body—and take note of what it is telling you. On paper. On your phone. On a calendar. What is it telling you and when?
2. Live consciously with the effects of the messages your body is sending for a week or a month or a year. Let yourself off the hook for a little while—free of guilt or judgment—so you can understand and appreciate the real impact they are having on your life and body. This awareness is crucial to solidify your motivation.
3. Find small, manageable behavioral changes to give the mice what they are asking for. Stick to them, and give yourself enough time to feel the payoff—several months or more.
I have worked with people from ages sixteen to ninety-two and from one hundred to four hundred pounds, all of whom were looking for a healthier relationship with their bodies. Sometimes dramatic changes are either medically necessary or readily implemented for those who have hit the wall and are ready for a radically different way of life. But, for most people, small changes are a lot more likely to stick, and they have a much more profound impact than you might imagine.
There are countless ways to support your health and well-being. You just need to grab hold of them, whenever you get the chance, to get a little stronger each day, rather than weaker. I know it sounds simplistic. It’s hard to believe that small actions make much of a difference, but the fact is they make all the difference.
Try being a health opportunist, and watch what happens.
Snag every opportunity to walk up a flight of stairs; help put away chairs after a community meeting; grab a snack from the fruit bowl every afternoon before your energy drops; turn off the TV when there’s nothing good on and organize your closet instead; or schedule a walking meeting rather than sitting at a coffee shop. These small adaptations shape the ways our bodies function over time. They sprout new connections in our brains that encourage more movement, more healthy food, and more social and professional connections. Following through on this stuff takes relatively little effort. It’s a no-brainer, but it does require a nudge. It requires an open mind and willingness to make a different choice than you would on autopilot.
By the time I saw a specialist for my shoulder, it was so far gone that the doctor had to shoot me up with cortisone—straight to the joint—while I did a dead-on imitation of Wile E. Coyote at the moment he steps off the cliff. I’d prefer never to experience that again. From here, the progress is up to me. My doctor says priority number one is getting my range of motion back. It’s slow going, and the stretches burn like fire. As I inch my way deeper into each position, I shut my eyes and release my gut. I talk to the muscles like they are sentient beings. Let’s have a chat, deltoid. Let go please. It’s safe. I know you’re trying to protect the joint, but it’s okay. Just give me another centimeter, one more, and hold right there. Breathe.
The master plan is to stretch multiple times a day; ice at night; get massage and acupuncture; increase anti-inflammatory foods in my diet and decrease inflammatory ones; and take over-the counter pain killers at night as needed.
Sticking with a routine like this might be difficult if I approach it the way I used to look at fitness. This sucks! It’s a hassle! An imposition! It’s robbing me of my freedom! But over time, I have realized like a frying pan to the head—that, no, doing what’s right for my body is not robbing me of my freedom.
The pain is robbing me of my freedom. The sugar addiction is robbing me of my freedom, and the lack of energy is robbing me of my freedom.
The more disconnected my body becomes from health and vitality, the fewer autonomous choices I am able to make. So when I work to reach one inch higher, one inch closer to normal with the arm I haven’t straightened in nearly a year, it will be for so much more than my own remedial care. It will be explicitly for my freedom and for everything I care about. It will be for the many more times I expect to have to hold up signs to express my dismay at arts programs or educational funding being slashed. It will be for wrangling my dog and high-fiving my kid. And it will be in defiance of the belief that women are weak and that our shoulders are primarily for showing off spaghetti straps. Shoulders are for lifting. They are for swinging and embracing, and I want all of those abilities back in spades.
Excerpted from Physical Disobedience: An Unruly Guide to Health and Stamina for the Modern Feminist by Sarah Hays Coomer. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.