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Being 'Differently Abled' in an Exercise-Obsessed Society

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It never used to be this way… where there’s a gym on practically every corner, you have at least one friend who is a trainer/pusher of the latest workout fad and weight loss shake, selfies look a lot like bragging about a person’s strength/endurance/accomplishment in the physical arena, and “girl’s night” includes a sweat session at the newest gym. I’m no stranger to participating in that world… I was that person up until two years ago when my health took a hit like a punch from Rocky. And down I went.

See, I was working out before workout wear became everyday wear. I sported old T-shirts and unflattering boxy shorts to the gym years before the modern day wardrobe, which now has more spandex than denim. I was doing leg lifts to Jane Fonda’s VHS alongside my mom in the 80s and took the only three classes offered at the gym (unlike today, where there is a different class offering for every hour). I wore tennis shoes during the era where there were maybe four choices and not a shoe for every sport in every color by every brand. I was a work out queen. Which makes it all the more difficult to exist now in the world where my body seems to rebelling from what I put it through all those years. In fact, it seems to be digging its heels in the ground and refusing to do the everyday essentials, like walking with ease. The doctors always say the reason I’m having such a hard time coming to terms with my new reality is because I was an extremely active person. I strained my body, pushed it, forced it… just one more rep, one more lap, one more class. I was an athlete, and my body was a tool.

So what’s a person to do when their once able body decides it’s not as able? Where do I fit in and how do I honor the athlete that once was? How do us “differently abled” individuals, due to chronic pain, fatigue, illness or circumstances, fit in a society that glorifies and bombards us with images of being nothing less than active?

We need to adjust. My workouts now include exercises geared to someone 40 years older than me. Sit-and-Be-Fit style, uber low impact, no coordinating outfit needed. I do not break a sweat. The gentle encouragement coming from the DVD to “take it easy” and “rest if you need to” and modified options on top of the modified option is a far far cry from the drill sergeant commands I’m used to following.

Aqua aerobics find me in the company of women many years my senior, and what a lovely bunch they are! Although I feel like my physical aging has been accelerated due to this illness and I’m joining a group I have not had the privilege to chronologically arrive at yet, I get them! I feel like an 80-year-old lady in a 40-year-old body. I’m am seeing what the future holds for my peers… now. They will one day realize the importance of balance, the way the mind can fail you in conversation, and strength that will be essential for simple things like getting off of the toilet. Truth! Just to name a few.

During this process of losing my physical abilities, I’m having to strengthen my mental abilities. There aren’t any celebrity endorsements behind that, no models airbrushed across magazine covers on the newsstand to celebrate that, or medals given out to show the world I showed up. Despite all the struggle… I am here, doing things that take great strength, endurance, and good old fashioned grit! Let me tell you, or… perhaps you already know… that kind of performance, that kind of perseverance, is so hard to go through.

When the physical part of you won’t respond to the mental commands you send it, you need to up the demands of the mental part of you for greater mental output. In other words… the new muscle that needs to be strengthened and flexed is the one that will assist you in your new reality. Your mindset.

Athlete: “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina” — Webster Dictionary.

Do you hear that? A faint sound of “Chariots of Fire” plays in my head as I slowly climb my stairs, wall walk my way through the house, and sit through situations where there is stimuli overload. My sideline spectators are my family of five, who are silently holding up their signs of support, encouraging me to do more, try harder, stick with it. My well earned “medals” are the arms that circle my neck at night with hugs for another day I’ve managed to do this despite the fight my body is putting me through. You know what? I think I hear it for you too!

From one differently abled athlete to another, I celebrate you! Perhaps we can meet up at PT class in our sensible shoes and share our daily victories… because they matter, you are stronger for them, you have the heart of a champion!

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Thinkstock photo by american911

Originally published: April 24, 2017
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