Who knew that fracturing my tibia would turn me into a mathematician? I’m kidding of course, because numbers have always been a foreign language to me, but since injuring myself I have developed a deeper understanding of Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: "An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force."
Before January 9th I was the object in motion - always pedaling, constantly moving from one event, camp, or project to the next - until an unbalanced force (ski binding failure in a steep Lost Sierra chute that put enough torque on my lower leg to fracture my tibial plateau, and do some meniscus damage, too) brought me to a standstill. I’ve become Newton’s "object at rest" for the past ten weeks or so, stalled if you will, which has given me plenty of time to ruminate on the important role that movement plays in our lives, both physically and mentally.
When the pandemic came crashing down on us in early 2020, all of our lives were thrown into turmoil in some way, shape, or form. Jobs were lost, businesses closed, lockdowns happened, restrictions and mandates were put in place, many perished due to Covid-19, and there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty, stress, and fear. I consider myself one of the extremely fortunate ones as I was only furloughed from work for six weeks, which meant I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on the couch, paralyzed, to some degree, by the horrific world/local news unfolding around me, doom-scrolling social media - not a good idea. And as much as I knew that, it was still hard to break the habit of filling my mind with the disturbing news and noise, which, inevitably, ruined my attitude. But you know what always helped change my mood? Going for a bike ride. No matter the distance, time, or route, I always came back from it a better person. Riding was my pandemic therapist of sorts. I think that my wife would agree that getting on my bike always moved my mood.
Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of science out there that validates the benefits of physical exercise on emotional well-being. Just 20 minutes a day of moving, in almost any form, can help us manage our mental health. Turns out there’s a term for this: behavioral activation. In his new book, “The Practice of Groundedness,” the author Brad Stulberg says that “you don’t need to feel good to get going; you need to get going to give yourself the chance to feel good.”
This is exactly my problem right now. Life on one leg means that I struggle to do anything physical, so there’s been no “get going” in my life to stimulate feeling good. Two months of inactivity has meant that I’m not getting the “medicine” of movement I’m used to through physical exercise and it’s definitely had an adverse effect on my head space.
Exercise helps balance three key neurochemicals in the brain: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. All of them affect our mood in different ways and are the “medicine” that comes through movement. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes mood, happiness, and feelings of well-being. It also impacts your entire body and enables brain cells, and other nervous system cells, to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. Dopamine is responsible for allowing you to feel motivation, pleasure, and satisfaction. When you feel good about achieving something, it's because you have a surge of dopamine in the brain. And norepinephrine is a stress hormone and neurotransmitter. The bad news is that I haven’t been getting any of this exercise induced “medicine” for the past ten weeks, so yeah, I’ve had some really rough days emotionally.
After so much forced inactivity, what’s it going to take to put this object (me) back in motion? Physical therapy, that’s what. At eight weeks my brace was finally unlocked, which allowed me to fully articulate my leg, and opened up a world of movement in terms of sitting comfortably, navigating life on crutches more deftly, and driving. I was also given the green light to begin some real light PT, and I’m talking micro movements, like activating my glute and quad with controlled contractions to re-engage muscles that haven’t worked in eight weeks, muscles that have atrophied and forgotten how to work to some degree.
Whenever I’m sitting, I’m constantly pumping my ankle back and forth to promote blood flow and engaging my quad/glute through leg extensions and contractions. I’m also working diligently to get the flexion, and extension, of my left leg back through really focused exercises a few times per day. As it currently stands, I’m only a few degrees away from both, so I know that I’m making progress, which feels really satisfying (there’s that hit of dopamine I’ve been missing). The next challenge is light weight bearing, and hopefully, some pedaling on my stationary Tacx trainer. I’m doing my best to be as patient as possible with the process of healing, knowing that if I am, it will insure better outcomes for my future athletic self.
One of the things that I have had plenty of time for in the past two months, besides trying to learn to play the ukulele, is read. I highly recommend checking out Shannon Lee’s “Be Water, My Friend,” which is her telling of the life and teachings of her father, Bruce Lee. For those not familiar with his story, Bruce pioneered his own style of martial art called jeet kune do, which is rooted in the “practitioner in fluid and present state to keep him or her flexible and capable of initiating and responding to change.” While I haven’t always been that flexible in my response to this injury, I have found a way through it, adapting as best as possible to the changed conditions of being a body at rest. It hasn’t always been pretty, but there’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel now.
As I begin a life that has motion in it again, I’m motivated by a passage from Stulberg’s book: “depression hates a moving target. The best way out is to force yourself to get going, even—and perhaps especially—when you don’t feel like it. This is a powerful mindset shift. When you feel down or apathetic, you can give yourself permission to feel those feelings (repression never helped anyone) but not dwell on them and do not take them as destiny.”
Beginning PT is my way of getting going, of taking the resting object and putting it in motion again, because even the smallest bits of activity right now make me happy. Trust me, do something physical on a daily basis. The science proves that movement is medicine, in whatever dosage you choose to take it.