Exercising Will Over Despair

Sometimes, just to keep moving IS the race

by Michael P. Murphy on April 1, 2009 - 7:00am

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 2

As a kid, I couldn’t play — much less had any interest in — sports, so I wrongly assumed that exercise just wasn’t necessary. I was a brainiac and a science fiction nerd, so I figured that exercise was just for the jocks, right? The only physical exercise I ever did on a regular basis were what I called Pumps.

Michael Murphy

To this day, we’ve never figured out why I had so many stomach ailments during my childhood. Once a month, almost like clockwork, I would be down for two or three days with nausea, vomiting, chills and sensitivity to light. Even in the midst of all this misery, I had a strange need for movement. I feared, I sensed, I was convinced that if I just lay still, my body would shut down. My mom, God bless her, would hold my ankles and pump my legs back and forth, 24 hours a day, sometimes in her sleep, until I felt better. I was only a kid, but I knew doing these Pumps saved my life, once a month.

This was my first inkling that some form of physical activity was important to good health. I’ve continued doing Pumps all my life, even though my stomach illnesses have long since subsided. I have my home health assistants pump each leg for five minutes (about 300 reps each) every morning before I go to work. Pumps help with circulation and also keep some limberness in my contracted limbs. These stretches eventually expanded to range-of-motion exercises with my arms and have now become such a normal part of my daily routine that if I should miss a day or two, I feel as if I’ve aged a hundred years.

In 2006, two things happened that further proved the need to keep physically fit. One: I turned 40, and my back, neck, and shoulders started telling me, “Hey, you don’t have the stamina of a 20 year-old anymore. Let’s get some stretches going here!”

Two: I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I had suffered an ungodly summer: three months of weight loss (40 pounds), constant hunger, constant thirst, constant peeing, impotence and an out-of-control temper. Then, once a blood test revealed a blood sugar level of 540, I faced another few months of too much insulin, resulting in dangerously low blood sugars.

The diagnosis of diabetes knocked me on my butt, in every sense. I felt so lousy that all I wanted to do was stay in bed where I was most comfortable, where I could work, read, listen to music, watch movies and surf the Internet. The idea of just staying put was seductive, but I never let it stop my Pumps.

Once my metabolism settled down and I could feel some strength returning, I forced myself to get into my wheelchair and stay up a couple hours longer than I wanted to. Every day, I made myself keep up with my e-mail correspondence, my novel research, the screenplay I was writing — building the time a little bit each afternoon — because I feared turning into a decadent blob, like a skinny Jabba the Hutt. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes, all that kept me from staying in bed was the fact that our new high-definition TV was two rooms away in the living room. But it worked! I got back to moving, exercising my will over my despair.

I knew then, and I know now, that I need to keep moving, mentally and physically. I’m fortunate that my current low-carb diet means that I only have to take one unit of insulin a day, but my daily exercise regimen helps with the quick metabolizing of that insulin. I don’t know if pushing myself has been all that useful for me physically, but it has certainly helped with my morale. The body and brain must work together to keep the machine in good working order. Whichever side is lagging, the other side pushes to get up and go.

Having a disability means that many of us can never truly test the limits of our endurance. We don’t have a whole lot of endurance to test! At that low point in my life two years ago, I was tempted to forget about the rest of the world, to be a spectator rather than a participant. By dragging my exhausted body and mind out of bed, I achieved a major victory over both middle age and this new disease.

Sometimes, just to keep moving IS the race. We might never score the winning touchdown, pass military training, or break the tape at the end of a marathon, but we have to savor every victory we can grab. And we win. Big time. We win through our determination to triumph over all those forces that attempt to slow us down.

Michael P. Murphy, 42, has spinal muscular atrophy and lives with his family in Oconomowoc, Wis. He has written two science fiction novels, To Rule in Hell and Data Streets, and a thriller, Innocence Kills: A Paul Murdock Mystery, available at authorhouse.com, Amazon.com and bookstores. He’s hard at work on his latest novel, Suka: A Paul Murdock Mystery.

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