I’ve been a steady gym go-er since I was in high school. But recently I found myself feeling emotional while in the gym. It was eye-opening and it caught me off-guard.
Recovering from injury has changed my perspective on so many things in life. Feeling a new mix of emotions in the gym got me thinking about how we never really know what’s going on for people we see around us, be they at the shops, at an event, or walking down the street.
I wanted to write about my experience in solidarity with those people finding it hard to keep it together in the most banal of circumstances. Whatever you might be going through, it’s ok to feel overwhelmed or emotional sometimes.
And if emotions strike in a place like the gym, then screw it, that’s fine too!
Why am I talking specifically about the gym? A few reasons.
It’s part of my lifestyle: Through my 20s I would go to the gym regularly. Of course, dependent on my very busy university timetable for lectures, studies and (ahem!) socialising and drinking beer. Into my 30s I got more committed. Body Attack, Step Athletic classes and doing weights was part of my lifestyle. And I knew that it made me feel great. Jumping around in time to the beat was exhilarating (how about those ‘supermans’ Attackers?). More recently, the gym has been crucial to recovering from my injury but it’s also a place that reminds me of many things I haven’t been able to do for almost a year.
It’s also a weird place, if we’re being honest. I don’t know if your experience is the same as mine, but generally gyms are places where people work hard at moving (because our sedentary lives don’t promote this). They sweat, swear, socialise and sometimes show off (those mirrors do come in handy for that).
Being emotional in this place is not really ‘the done thing’. Since my knee injury, and all the rehabilitation underway, it’s a place guaranteed to regularly strike up an emotion or three in me and yep, I’ve even cried.
There’s been five underlying reasons for me getting teary…
After I significantly injured my knee in 2015, I was forced to take over two months completely off from the gym (and lots of other things in life!) but eventually the regular simple training began again and the gym became a very close friend. There were never any excuses to not go, it just had to happen. My leg depended on it.
In the early days after my injury, when I was learning to walk again, the pool at the gym was my saviour. Well, when I wasn’t terrified… I still remember the first few times when I was incredibly anxious about slipping over. It was also very tricky getting in and out of the pool with a leg that I couldn’t put much weight on. I needed a helper every time to haul me up from the edge of the pool.
In the pool, I could put weight through my leg with less pain and could feel a little more like the bipedal human I’d been for decades. The water was also quite relaxing and when I was doing my exercises in one spot, after walking a few laps, I would gaze out the windows at the world.
Trees swayed, children played, birds flew by, people wandered past chatting to each other during their lunch breaks. I felt a mix of gratitude, sorrow and relaxation during these times at the pool.
As I got stronger, the pool became a source of internal power. I would chant as a mantra: ‘I am strong; this leg is strong’ with each step. (In my head of course, I didn’t want to freak out the other swimmers.) The pain was still significant and with each step I had to fight the fear of another gasp-inducing jolt of pain.
Here’s one of my Facebook updates at the time:
22nd September 2015: Two milestones today. 1. walked without crutches using two legs… in the ‘gentle exercise’ lane in the pool at the gym. All the while had a lovely 85 yo man with 20% heart capacity overtaking me but encouraging me on. 2. had a shower at night, which used to be my routine. In the last 2 months I haven’t had the energy or a knee that wasn’t too swollen and painful at night to try for a night shower.
(By the way, my showering habits will be covered in another post… #TMI alert!)
Four months after my injury I could again partake in leg weights. “Great!” I thought. But I was so disappointed to discover that my first single (injured) leg press was able to accomplish a measly five kilogram plate (the super light weight referred to below). I used to leg press 10-rep sets of about 75 kilograms with both legs, so roughly 35 kilograms each leg.
30th November 2015: Milestones today (ie. First time in 4ish months): Walked up stairs leading with (injured) left leg, holding rail; did some (land-based) 1/4 squats + leg press on left leg (super light weight); then pedalled a bike. The physio (who I first saw right after accident) was a little amazed at how strong I am.
From there, the regular ‘showing up’ at the gym rolled on. I kept on keeping on.
Regularly, I would tear up as I watched the aerobisticians (new word invented) jumping around in their Body Attack class. Oh how I missed it.
But I also felt determined that I’d get back in that group fitness room one day.
The days and weeks went by and I was still there in the gym, doing what I could. Cheering myself on with little wins. And that, readers, is what injury recovery comes down to. The perseverance to get little wins. That is all. Because small moments in time, add up to bigger wins. And to progress.
2nd February 2016: Today I levelled up my single (left) leg press to 25kg (3 x 10: 20, 22.5, 25). This is compared to only being able to do 5kg a few times on 30 November (first time post-injury). Can’t wait until I can leg press more with my left than my right (currently at 45kg).
And more progress. Until… I had surpassed my old strength levels!
24th April 2016: Gym. Sometimes exhausts me but today took, then gave me strength back in spades. I single leg pressed 50kg on ol’ lefty. That means 10x what I could do five months ago, after I’d just learned how to walk again…
Fifty kilograms on my injured leg. How was this possible? Remember I said earlier, I’d only ever gotten to about 35 kilograms per leg before my injury. I still had a knee that required surgery and my leg was much smaller than my right leg. And yet, I could do more weight with it.
By the end of April, I was really in a groove and getting strong enough for surgery. That had ultimately been what the fiveish months of work so far was all about: prehabilitation to get on to the operating table.
And then it dawned on me. Once I’d had the suirgery, I’d again be back at square one. My muscle would waste again (according to my physiotherapist it only takes 24 hours of bed rest for this to happen!) and I’d be starting with simple range of movement exercises. No walking. No weights. And definitely no aerobics for at least another six months.
And with that, I was sad again. Ohhh how I’d miss the feelings of strength, balance and stamina I’d been gaining over the last few months.
There was a real emotional weight at realising the struggle that was ahead. But then again, as I’d learned before, I knew that focusing on small wins can result in great progress. So that was it. I’d get back here, to this place I love and hopefully my knee would be even better than before.
I’m not saying sorry for those tears along the way because ultimately they’ve allowed me to connect to myself and understand my own pain, joy and needs. Those weepy moments have helped me reach in to my inner strength to keep going and also reach out for support from other people when I’ve needed it.
So when I’m in the gym and I see someone that looks like they’ve got things on their mind, or they’re even in tears, I take a moment and feel compassion. Because who knows what mountains they are climbing in their lives.
What has prompted you to cry in public? Leave a comment below.