Let’s Talk About: Health, Pain, and Stress

Often when I see other people healthblogging, they talk a lot about their workouts: how long they ran, how much they lifted, how far they rode. What we do is an important part of any workout: it’s a metric we can use to judge results, to explore improvement. The workout itself seems like the core focus: do the workout, improve yourself. Complete the workout, challenge yourself. Through a system of workouts, get better, beat your PR. Work out –> get healthy.

This is true. But health is a holistic thing: it involves a lot more than lifting a barbell or running a mile. And if you’re really interested in health, there are factors other than your actual workouts that are going to come into play as these things settle into your life. I want to talk about two of them today: pain and stress.

The reason I want to talk about them personally is because they’ve been on my mind recently, maybe more than my actual workouts. I have a difficult time dealing with both, and so I think it’s time for me to get my thoughts out there. A lot of bloggers throw around the words listen to your body – but what does that mean? How do you learn to speak your body’s language, and how do you learn what’s a warning sign and what isn’t?

Pain
Pain is part of life, part of having a body – but it’s especially a part of working out. We work until we are in pain, because then we feel like we have pushed the hardest; it’s in healing us from that pain that our body improves. We lift weights until failure, until our muscles burn and ache and we can’t walk or lift our arms for two days afterwards; we run long and slow for hours until we’re pushing the limits of endurance, until our feet feel blistered and our ankles and knees feel like stones and our lungs are gasping. And then we take a rest day, and we do it again, and eventually 7 miles feels like 5, and 60lb feels like 35lb, and suddenly we’re better than we were before.

The pain that I want to talk about isn’t the good ache of a challenging workout. It’s the sharp ache of an injury, or the lingering ache of a strain, or the recurring pain you get during that first two miles.

Here’s the thing: if you let pain talk you out of a workout, you’ll never work out consistently. Or, I wouldn’t, anyway – I’m constantly in pain, somewhere. On a good day I’m hovering at a 2-3 on the pain scale (of 10). If I waited until my body was 100% to do a workout, I would never do a workout. Ever. My question is: how do you tell when you’re just using pain as an excuse to skip a workout, because you’re lazy or tired, and when your pain is a message you should listen to and take an extra rest day?

I’ve tried both methods. When I was training for my half marathon, nothing got in the way of my training plan. As long as I could move, I would still run. Sore ankle? Still running. Back hurts? Still running. Got the flu? If I can breathe, I’m still running. Might be a stress fracture? Run on it anyway. I did well at the half, but then I had to take almost an entire month off to heal up overall; I had to start training for another race afterwards, but after that race, I had to take off a long period of time. And what I remember most about those months of training for the half was just hating running. I was tired, I hurt, I didn’t like doing tempo runs because they were hard and triggered my asthma, I didn’t like doing long runs because they took up so much time and triggered my asthma, I didn’t feel like I was getting better and it was agony. But on the positive side, I showed that I could stick with a plan through anything, and I also showed myself that plans work, consistency works: I got so much out of that dedication when I raced that year. I was better than I ever thought I could be.

But I’ve also tried the other side of it. After both my big races were done that year I knew I needed a break, so I decided that I would start erring on the side of a rest day: if I felt like I needed the break, physically or mentally, I took the break. If I didn’t feel like running, I didn’t run. If I didn’t feel like lifting, I stayed home. If something hurt, I’d try to take care of it with ice and heat and rest. And over the course of that, I lost almost all of my fitness, and gained 10 pounds. I’m not trying to say that heavy/fat = unhealthy here — but what happened for me was that I took the concept of a break or a rest day and used it as an out, a reason to just do nothing.

It’s something I’m struggling with now as I face the races I’ve already committed to and this awful thing in my neck/shoulders that won’t stop stabbing me. Do I take it easy, but then lose what I’ve gained? Or do I work through it – as carefully as I can – even though it makes the pain stay? Some pain is a message from your body saying I’m making you stronger; some is a message from your body saying cut that the hell out. I’m listening, but my body isn’t telling me what it wants me to do for it.

There has to be a place that’s healthy. Or healthier than either of the two extremes.

Stress
Stress is a part of life, too. Nobody gets a free ride. We have to work a job, to make money; we have to feed ourselves, and keep our homes, and care for ourselves – and others – too. Adding a workout plan into a life that’s already busy – work, school, chores, social life, etc – can fill up time, real quick. If working out is supposed to be so healthy, why does making that 7:00pm trip to the gym add so much stress, take so much effort?

When you’re stressed out, it can be that much harder to find the time, the willpower, the motivation to work out. Yes, we’ve all heard about endorphins and cortisol and how physical activity can relieve stress and combat those horrible hormones — but that doesn’t mean much when you left the house at 7:00am and worked all day and it’s now 6:30pm and you haven’t eaten dinner and you really, really, really don’t want to go run that 5 miles. Or is that just me? I don’t think, I’ll feel so much better after that run! I think, oh god, I don’t have the energy to do that.

It’s another thing I’m struggling with right now. My job has been more stressful than ever since January, and although it’s finally starting to come back under my control – now, in August – a lot of the damage has already been done. My dentist is pretty sure I’ve given myself TMJ because I’m so stressed out I clench my jaw during the day and gring my teeth in my sleep: I’m going to need a night guard. My doctor is pretty sure that I’ve triggered this pinched nerve in my neck through a combination of overworking it (lifting heavy weights) and stress – hunching my shoulders, carrying knots in my neck and back, and sitting at the computer: I’m going to need physical therapy. I’ve done a lot of damage to my body in the last six months, carrying all of this stress.

And it makes it harder to work out, not easier. I’m exhausted and stressed and all I want to do is relax. Maybe part of it is that I haven’t yet found a workout – or training plan – that I enjoy, but the last thing I want to do is go run 5 – or 7 – or 3 – miles. I want to sit on my couch covered in cats and do nothing. So is it healthier to give myself that break, or to make myself run? Where’s the balance between relaxation-time and workout-time?

 

Being healthy isn’t just about what you do and what you eat. It’s about how you live.

Let’s Talk About Health: Misconceptions

I’m still trying to stabilize my plans for this month – my neck / the chiropractor, along with some personal stuff, has derailed this week – so as I work to figure out where I’m going with my workouts in August, I want to talk a little about, basically, this: how you decide where you want to go.

The definition of efficiency is getting the most out of the least: getting the most output out of the least input. But how do you define these variables? Is your input money? Time? Effort? Sweat equity? And what’s your output? There are so many things we can track – pressured by the industry, by books, by each other, by body image.

One thing I’ve learned over the years that’s important to understand:

“getting healthy” ≠ “losing weight” ≠ “looking thinner” ≠ “being fit”

Just take a look at that for a second.

Getting healthy. What is it? How do you define it? Getting healthy could mean eating better; it could mean working out more; it could mean working out less; it could mean working out smarter. It could mean stressing less about how you’re working out. It could mean things unrelated to activity: not getting sick as much, managing a chronic illness, functioning with daily pain. It’s usually an overall thing, yes, and has to be considered from so many angles – but we have to define where we are going if we want to build a path to get there.

Losing weight is actually not a great judge of “health”. It can be, of course. But a) muscle, which gives you a much healthier body composition, actually weighs more; b) due to muscle/fat distribution, someone can look thinner but weigh more –  muscle takes up far less space and looks better; and c) many people can vary 5 lb or more over any given day or given week due to water intake, salt retention, phase of the moon, etc.  And yet so many people are so focused on the scale.

Looking thinner isn’t necessarily a good gauge of “health” either. In some cases it might be – where a more muscled person would weigh more but look thinner than their less-muscled counterpart – but declaring ‘skinny’ to be ‘healthy’ isn’t correct either. Plus, people who don’t feed their bodies correctly aren’t being “healthy” either, no matter how “thin” they may appear.

Being fit is confusing, too. What defines someone who is fit? The ability to do 100 pushups? To run a 5K? Being able to bench press a certain weight? Running a marathon? There are many different kinds of ‘fitness’ – and some are mutually exclusive, for anyone who isn’t a professional athlete.

I’m sure everyone can think of a couple people who slot right into a certain area of this odd set of overlapping ideals. Someone who runs 20 miles a week and has completed half-marathons but still carries some pudge around their belly. Someone who appears tall and slender, but sits at the computer all day, eats junk, and can’t walk a mile without getting winded. Someone who could barely run a mile, but can do pull-ups until the sun sets; someone who can run a marathon but couldn’t do 10 proper form push-ups. Someone who is carring 10-15 extra pounds, but takes long slow walks and does yoga. Someone who batters their body with running lifting and contact sports so that they’re almost always sore and injured. Somewhere in the middle of all of these options lies actual health. Where do we find it?

If you want to run a marathon, you’re going to need to become a completely different kind of healthy than if you want to start lifting heavy weights. You’ll need a different regimen: long slow runs, vs short high-intensity intervals. You’ll need a different diet: carbs vs protein. You’ll look differently at the end. But both are healthy- and in the busy world most adults have to deal with now, ‘both’ isn’t an option.

And let’s not forget what we get marketed, the things we’re being sold: thin is healthy, according to the ads and the health campaigns, and food is sin; low-fat! low-carb! fake sweeteners! treat yourself to that brownie if you worked out. It’s a mindfuck, plain and simple.

The answers are complicated. But the first thing to do is wade through all of the misconceptions and misinformation out there and decide: what is it that you want your body to do?