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When My Son's Pediatrician Said 'Walking Isn't Exercise'

“Walking only counts as exercise when you’re 80. You need to be doing other things besides walking.”

My son’s pediatrician spoke those words. He had asked Ryan what he does for exercise, and my 12-year-old son had immediately answered, “We go for walks every day.”

I was unprepared for the pediatrician’s words and his blatant dismissal of our daily walks.

Several replies flashed through my mind.

What are you saying? Are you kidding me?

I silenced them all.

We finished up the appointment, reassuring the pediatrician that Ryan’s daily movement also includes dancing, bike riding, and playing basketball.

I didn’t argue with the doctor, or tell him how wrong it was for him to summarily dismiss walking as inadequate. And I didn’t toot my own horn, either. I didn’t point out that though I live with the chronic pain and unpredictability of undifferentiated connective tissue disease, my son and I are outside moving and exercising our bodies each day.

I didn’t explain that my legs hurt. Every day. It’s just a matter of intensity. Sometimes it’s a general tightness, like you might feel after a muscle cramp. Sometimes it’s a heaviness, as if I have weights strapped around me and they’re holding me back and keeping me from going as fast as my son. Sometimes my knees creak and groan like the stairs in our house, and each step onto a curb is a bit of a struggle.

But my son and I continue to walk.

Because this is about more than just walking.

There’s no denying that living with my chronic pain condition “sucks.” (And in our house, that’s a bad word.)

I never forget that my son is watching and listening and learning from me. He is noticing what I do or don’t do. He is observing how I handle myself each day. Each day, with every action I take or don’t take, I’m also teaching my son how I handle adversity. I’m giving him an important, never-ending health lesson. There are definitely certain things to do, and certain things to stay away from, to help our bodies stay healthy and strong. But you can follow all the rules, and sometimes our bodies still get sick. Become infected. Act differently than we expected.

However unfair it may seem, it’s our reality. I have a chronic pain condition. So where do we go from here? What am I going to do about it? How am I going to function in the world in my roles as a mom, a wife, a writer?

I hope I’m teaching Ryan that no matter what happens, you keep trying and always aim for your personal best. Which means I’m going to keep moving, as best I can, each day.

And for me, that means slow, leisurely walks in our neighborhood. Sometimes we walk a mile. Sometimes half a mile. Sometimes it’s simply up and down outside in front of our house, because I need the safety of staying close to home. I don’t join my son when he jogs up and down the sidewalk. I sit on our front step, read the paper, and call out shouts of encouragement. I watch him practice his dribbling while I water plants. He’s moving and exercising even when I’m not.

Sometimes we come home, and I feel physically worse than I did before the walk. My legs feel weak and shaky. Pain shoots up and down my leg. Sometimes I feel that way when I’m home, regardless if I sat at my desk writing or stood in the kitchen cooking. I don’t always know when and how my pain will intensify.

I’m always grateful, though, to have the time to spend with my son. The time to have an unhurried, no-particular-place-to-go type of walk. A chance to simply be together, as best we can in that moment. An opportunity to chat — about a butterfly sighting, an upcoming school assignment, the delivery estimate for Ryan’s new shoes.

It’s hard for me to admit I can’t go as far or as fast or for as long. But I can go, at least a bit, and that’s the part I try to focus on. It’s not always easy. I remember, even if Ryan doesn’t, how I used to buckle him into his stroller and take him for hour-long walks in our neighborhood. And now there are days when I struggle after 10 minutes of walking.

I’ll admit there’s also a bit of fear motivating my actions. What if someday I’m unable to walk independently? What if slow, leisurely neighborhood walks are no longer possible? So I walk now, while I still can. And while my almost-teenage son still wants to walk with me.

Nothing has changed since that appointment with my son’s pediatrician. And when you think about the big picture, my husband and I must be doing something right.

Before he left the exam room, our pediatrician told us, “You’re doing great.” Looking at Ryan, he said, “You make my job easy.”

I’ll take that as code for, “You’re doing a good job parenting. Keep it up.”

Which means we’ll keep walking each day, too.

Getty image by Juan Jose Napuri.