A Couple Good Reasons (and One Bad One) to Drag Your Crippled Ass to the Gym

Please join me in welcoming a new Stumptuous contributor: Saint Pikachu, whose fierce and irreverent wit combined with her vulgar zest for life appeals to me like a shiny thing attracts a crow.

SP writes with painful juicy honesty about her “journey of imperfection” and resilience, and was the third-place winner of the Stumptuous Fitness Model contest. Like all of us, she’s had her ups and downs, and also like all of us, does a lot of… ahem… experiential learning in nutrition, health, fitness, and life in general.

Which is why she’s awesome. So, please: enjoy.

–Mistress K

A Couple Good Reasons (and One Bad One) to Drag Your Crippled Ass to the Gym

…Or to the park or the track or wherever you like to get physical – I’m a weight-room girl myself, but it doesn’t matter where you like to get active, just that you’re doing something fun and challenging, something you want to do.

Ah, but that’s the trick, isn’t it? Getting able-bodied people to want to is hard enough, but making physical activity appealing to us crippled folks can be an even bigger pain in the ass. We have concerns that are not adequately addressed by exhortations to exercise solely for the sake of health (a word that be pretty loaded), and we have a hard time finding images of folks like us in ads for gyms and workout gear.

It can start to feel like physical activity is just not something crippled folks should be pursuing, and I think that sucks.

I’m talking to you, crippled reader: I want to get your ass in the gym. So, I’m going to say a few things about WOWC (working out while crippled) that you may not have thought of, and hopefully they will encourage you and I will manage to be helpful and not just obnoxious.

For the record: I’m a 32 year old woman with multiple sclerosis. My experiences are, of course, bound by the particular quirks of my own crippled body and may not always be representative of yours – we are each of us God’s unique, crippled little snowflakes, and what works for me may not always work for you.

And for the record: I use words like “crippled” a lot – this bothers some people. If you’re one of those people, I’m sorry.


Ok, you ready? Good. Now, first of all:

You’re not that delicate, princess.

“Oh no,” a friend said of my blackened shin and raw-hamburger knee. “What the hell happened?”

“It’s nothing! I just fell!” I said, and her eyes got wet and wide.

“Oh honey,” she said, collapsing onto my chest for a hug. “I’m so sorry.”

“I think I’ll survive,” I said, baffled, and spit out a lock of her hair. An aside to whatever god made me: Why are all my female friends shorter than me? And why does their hair love to send tentacles into my mouth like horny octopi? Jeeze.

People can be very reluctant to encourage physical activity for the sick and crippled folks they love. It’s perfectly understandable – you’re already kinda broken, they don’t want you to break further – but it can be a hindrance for the crippled beginner who is already nervous about taking on new physical challenges.

It’s also perfectly understandable for you to be afraid to hurt yourself, and when your fear meets the fears others have for you, it tends to grow. If your loved ones see your health as so fragile, so easily shattered, it’s hard not to feel the same way, and that can stop you before you start.

Good thing that’s horseshit.

You are not a vase or Gutenberg Bible or a gimpy little veal – you do not need to be stowed away in a box for protection.

On the contrary, you probably endure, on a daily basis, a level of pain and difficulties that most folks don’t (and that many don’t even notice). Activities that able-bodied folks can perform without thinking (getting the mail, taking a shower) require the care and meticulous planning of a casino robbery. You bust your ass just to get through the day.

You’re tough, in other words, and you can take it. Be smart and be honest with yourself about what you can do, be thoughtful and careful, but don’t live in fear of damaging your tender self. Yep, getting active means you might hurt yourself, but I’m not being flip when I say that can be a gift.

Getting hurt and recovering reminds you of how resilient your body is, and how tough you are. These are good things to remember.

Another good thing:

Cripples and athletes are BFFs.

(and that title is not meant to imply any sort of division between cripple and athlete – there are scads of crippled athletes out there kicking ass every day – but to reassure the crippled beginner who is not yet comfortable identifying as an athlete)

I wouldn’t have thought so when I was getting started, but serious athletes (amateur and professional alike) tend to be far more understanding and supportive than the general public. I’ve had people honk and yell at me from their cars for taking too long to shuffle across the street (with cane at my side, no less), but when I was dragging my crippled ass through Warrior Dash a few weeks ago, not one person complained about me holding them up or being too slow to get past an obstacle.

A woman at a café once stage-whispered to a friend that watching me add cream to my coffee with trembling hands was “disgusting and sad” (why she was watching me doctor my coffee at all is a mystery – I usually don’t stare at people in public unless I think I’ve seen them in a porno, and even then, I have the good taste to be discreet).

But in the gym, men who could snap me in half like a Kit-Kat will approach me to offer their shy admiration of my overhead press. The camaraderie I’ve developed with able-bodied gym rats is as welcome as it is surprising.

Athletes know what it is to push one’s body hard, to fight through pain and weariness. They respect you for doing it – even if it looks weird, even if it’s slow or sloppy. That being said…

It’s not going to cure you.

Most anyone with a chronic illness has, at one point or another, benefitted from the stunning reservoir of cutting-edge medical knowledge that friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers, grocery store check-out clerks, fellow bus riders, beauty school dropouts, and recently paroled arsonists moving in to the apartment downstairs all seem to have at their fingertips.

“Just don’t eat dairy, and you’ll be fine,” says a woman you once had to dissuade from using a butter knife to dig a wad of gum out of an electrical outlet.

“You need to start drinking raw milk,” says a man you’ve met that day, whose name you’re still not sure of (was it Jerry or Gary? Terry? Oh jeeze, this is why I don’t go to parties) and whose cologne makes your eyes water.

“There’s a doctor in Bolivia who’s curing people with bee stings,” says the guy who delivers your paper, “but you have to believe, or it won’t work.” He then excuses himself to go to his second job: selling baggies of oregano to gullible kids down at the middle school.

The sheer volume of unsolicited advice sick people get (and the arrogant tone in which it’s often delivered, as if your illness developed from laziness or stupidity) can be overwhelming. That’s bad enough, but I’m speaking from personal experience when I say that such advice can also break your heart. Being sick can make you desperate, and desperate people are willing to believe and try some pretty crazy shit. When that crazy shit doesn’t work, it’s devastating.

That’s why it’s important for me to be clear about this: getting active is not going to cure you. It may help your illness or disability – it may help a lot – but it also may not, and you, my beloved crippled snowflake, need to understand that and accept it.

The gym is not going to cure you. So why even bother?

Because your body is just like everybody else’s.

It can be hard to remember because your illness or disability sometimes feels like your body’s defining characteristic, but remember that your body is, in the ways that matter, the same a everybody else’s. It wants to move, to act with purpose and focus and silliness and joy.

Your body does not care that it can’t do the same things other bodies can, or that it moves differently, or that other people might think it looks weird – it just wants to do what it can do, whatever that may be. What’s different about you is not nearly so important as what’s the same.

Your body, just like everybody else’s body, wants to be used. Use it.