I have a tendency to stare overlong at the many runners who come to my picturesque wooded lakeside neighborhood for their daily exercise. I watch the ones for whom running comes so naturally, with their long effortless strides, their upright posture, the unmistakable light in their eyes. I envy these runners, for their gracefulness and obvious pleasure in strenuous physical movement. I watch the ones for whom running obviously does not come naturally, with their stiff and shuffling steps, their hunched backs, the unmistakable grimace on their faces. I identify with these runners, because even though I cannot run even at their decidedly unswift speeds, I know what it feels like to have every step require a recommitment of the will to embrace momentary pain in the service of long-term health and well-being.
To put it most simply, I want to run, and I can’t. I never have. And I probably never will. A lifelong bone disorder, accompanied in my middle age by osteoporosis and arthritis, has led to problems with my gait, strength, and joint alignment that make running an impossibility.
A video about learning to run is making the Facebook rounds, and for good reason. Arthur Boorman, a Gulf War veteran, explains in the video that too many hard landings in his role as a paratrooper left him with back and knee injuries. His doctors told him he would never walk unassisted again. Overweight, sedentary, and using crutches for mobility, Boorman eventually decided to take up a form of yoga. In six months, he not only lost more than 100 pounds, but learned to walk unassisted….and to run.
My first thought on seeing this video was, “I wonder if I could learn to run by applying myself as diligently as this man did to yoga (or whatever)?” My second thought was, “How is this video going to feed our often damaging, certainly false cultural notion that impairments can be overcome by willpower, perseverence, and hard work, which leads to the even more damaging notion that those who are impaired or in pain have no one to blame but themselves?”
Arthur Boorman’s story is remarkable, and he deserves every smidgen of good will and admiration he receives for reclaiming his body’s strength and abilities through hard physical work and determination, day after day. In our culture, where sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition, and excess weight exacerbate and even cause many impairments and illnesses, many of us need to hear the message this video offers—that doing the hard work of exercise and weight loss can do wonders to transform our physical and mental health.
I know that losing 10 pounds would lessen the pressure on my arthritic joints. I know firsthand the paradox of coping with arthritis pain, which is that keeping oneself moving and active goes a long way toward mitigating pain and disability, even though activity can make joints hurt more in the short term.
But I also know that no amount of yoga or swimming or weight training or walking will allow me to learn to run, or even to walk without some amount of pain. And I am all too familiar with our cultural tendency to insist that optimal health is only a yoga practice or nutritional supplement or strict diet away, and thus to ignore the reality that some people’s bodies are impaired in ways that cannot be fixed. Anyone living with some type of chronic condition has had the experience of well-meaning friends (or even strangers) offering advice that so completely denies the reality of our condition it is laughable. For those of us who have OI (my bone disorder), this advice often takes the form of, “Have you tried taking calcium supplements or drinking more milk?” The food-as-medicine fix is a popular one these days, as this or that superfood or supplement or something-free diet is touted as having miraculous curative qualities for whatever ails you.
Then there are those who are skeptical of any and all traditional medical intervention, who insist that a particular diet or exercise or meditation practice is the magic bullet. I have had conversations with folks who say they “don’t believe” in taking medication, as if medications are magic potions offered by hucksters rather than compounds with proven beneficial effects. Sorry folks, but your sour cherries have got nothing on my opioid patch when it comes to relieving my arthritis pain.
And finally, there is a significant population of people who firmly believe that regular, strenuous exercise is the key to overall health and well-being. To an extent, of course, they are right. The benefits of exercise, from feel-good endorphins to healthy weight maintenance, muscle strength, better balance, and lower blood pressure, are myriad. But some devotees of regular exercise come across as simply unable to sympathize with those for whom the barriers to strenuous exercise go far beyond braving the cold on a winter morning run or dealing with the occasional pain of a pulled muscle. One day when I was getting my hair cut, some women in the salon were complaining to each other about their various exercise-related injuries. My stylist, who also happens to be my neighbor and friend, bent down and whispered in my ear, “Does it drive you nuts to hear healthy people complaining about their aches and pains?” Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes, it does.
Arthur Boorman’s story of transformation is incredible and deserving of the attention it is receiving. His story has been on my mind this week, as I have needed inspiration to take the dog for a walk each morning, even when my aching joints and warm house make the prospect unsavory. I will keep on going on those daily walks with the dog, and swimming laps a few times a week, motivated largely by my after-swim stretch in the hot tub, where weightlessness and heat provide some of the only completely pain-free moments of my day.
But I am pretty sure I will never learn to run, no matter how many walks or swims or Pilates routines I do. And I hope that those are inspired by Arthur Boorman’s video will applaud his efforts without also assuming that all that is preventing people living with chronic pain and impairments from being able to walk and run and function like everyone else is their own unwillingness to take on the hard work of transformation.
Many of us actually take on that hard work every day, with resulting transformations that are far less dramatic and noticeable than Boorman’s. These small transformations—my going a bit farther on each day’s dog walk, for example—don’t make for inspirational videos, but they are still meaningful.