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Changing My Perspective on Stretching With Cerebral Palsy


I’ve lived with cerebral palsy my entire life, which means I’ve lived with tight leg muscles and a certain degree of spasticity for my entire life. My favorite metaphors to help describe the sensation of tight muscles to others include imagining being stuck in a pair of skinny jeans or feeling like my leg muscles are twisted up like a pretzel. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of lying on the floor with my left leg on someone’s shoulder so my tight hamstrings could be stretched out. To be clear: I hated this. By the time I was 5, I had figured out ways I could cheat the system like pushing my hips off the floor or squirming so I wouldn’t have to be held in that position. My attempts didn’t last long, but I usually tried to put up some kind of fight. I’ll be the first to admit I was not the easiest kid to work with, but stretching was rarely ever negotiable.

When I was cleared from regimented PT around age 12, I felt like I was free. No more physical therapy and no more having to stretch! What I didn’t comprehend at that age was the big picture. Because PT and stretching were always framed as something I was forced to do, rather than as a positive thing, I didn’t grasp how beneficial they were. I was more interested in exercising my right to say “Nope, I’m not doing this’’ after not having a choice for so many years. I held onto the belief that having mild CP meant I could get by without making certain sacrifices, like finding time in my already hectic college schedule just to stretch. I could justify my choice to skip stretching by telling myself I had more important things to do, or that it wouldn’t actually make a difference. At the most, I stretched only when my muscles actually felt tight.

My wake up call came shortly after I had a rectus femoris transfer last year. The surgery was successful in helping me gain more knee flexion while walking, thus making it far less likely that I will trip and fall. The results have been life-changing! On one particular day, I was working with my physical therapist when he hit me with a heavy truth:

“It’s really great to see that you’re not walking like a stiff robot anymore!” (A description he came up with to describe my gait pre-surgery which gave me a chuckle.) “But you know Annie, if you don’t continue with stretching every single day, you’ll end up right back here, walking just as you were before!”

Needless to say, that was not what I wanted to hear.

I walked out of the therapy gym that day feeling deflated, but I knew deep down that just ignoring the whole stretching thing wasn’t going to be an option anymore. I was too grateful to have had these results from my operation, and even more afraid of letting them slip away. Plus this journey wasn’t all about me. I couldn’t dare forget those who had shown me love through the whole surgery and recovery process. Not maintaining my new and improved way of walking would basically show all those who had cared for me that I didn’t care. And that could not be further from the truth.

Being told I would have to stretch every day for the rest of my life was very intimidating, so I knew it would be best if I went slowly. In order not to scare myself out of a lifestyle change, I started small. My PT suggested I use a long towel to stretch my hamstrings, so every night somewhere between my journaling, reading or watching Netflix, I forced myself to do a couple reps of stretches. Every few nights I felt my hamstrings relax a little more. Once I was able to get into a routine, I started to frame stretching in a different way. I took those five or 10 minutes each night and said to myself, “I’m using this time to take care of my body.” I liked the empowerment my new perspective gave me, and I fell asleep with my muscles feeling better too. The best part? When I went back for a follow up with my surgeon, he was impressed with my improved range of motion!

Obviously, there’s always room for improvement. In no way am I writing this as a fitness junkie or yoga enthusiast. There are still nights where I force my left leg in the air, even though I’d rather be curled up in my bed. I’m just a girl in her 20s who pretty much had to learn the hard way that a small thing like doing her stretches would pay off in the end. And to be honest? It wasn’t even that hard!  I can only imagine what would have happened years ago if I had put all that energy from saying “no” to stretching into just actually doing it. One of the best decisions I’ve made has been changing my thought process about stretching from “Why should I?” to “Why wouldn’t I?”

Getty image by kbycphotography.