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Health & Wellness

Winning the Losing Game: One Woman’s Four-Month Fitness Challenge

Part 2: After an injury, changing the game

In spite of a sprained back, Vicky Waltz is continuing to meet with personal trainer Stephanie McNamara (SED’07). Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Two weeks ago, BU Today writer Vicky Waltz began chronicling her four-month fitness challenge. Read the previous installment.

I had been warned that my quest to shed some pounds would have its difficult moments — times when I would want to shout, “Forget the treadmill; hand me a donut!” so I was prepared for some discouragement. I just wasn’t expecting it to arrive in the form of an injury.

But perhaps I should have been. Two months earlier, while biking through town, I had strained my lower back. By mid-January, however, when I enrolled in the FitRec Center’s personal training program, I was feeling pretty good, with only some occasional lingering stiffness. Then, three weeks into my new fitness regimen, the muscles in my mid and lower back decided to remind me of my sprain. Now, in addition to having a personal trainer, I have a physical therapist.

This is not the first time I’ve been on the injured list. Two years ago, it was severe inflammation in my knees, and last spring I rolled my ankle climbing Mount Wachusett. The ankle injury put me out of commission for more than two months, and when I wasn’t sitting with my foot in a bucket of ice water and feeling sorry for myself, I was hobbling around the kitchen, baking oatmeal cookies, cream cheese brownies, and chocolate cakes.

Of course, those injury-induced baking frenzies contributed to some of the weight I am now trying to lose, so soothing my pain with sweets this time around is not an option. I haven’t eaten any chocolate or desserts in 39 days. Not that I’m counting.

I know it is neither logical nor productive to agonize over this setback, but it’s discouraging, and part of that discouragement stems from the realization that my body is perhaps a bit more vulnerable to injury than it used to be. Just as I can no longer eat junk food without adding inches to my waist, I cannot push my body as far as I once could. Three years shy of 30, I find that my body is changing — and aging.   

The Fixer
For my first physical therapy session, at the Boston University Ryan Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, therapist Chris Cessario confirms my doctor’s diagnosis: I’ve sprained my sacroiliac joint, the junction where the hip and pelvic bones meet the sacrum. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I’m hopeful that Chris knows what to do about it. And he does. “For the time being,” he advises, “I think you should lay off most of your physical activities, particularly the spinning classes.”
I explain, as calmly as I can, that halting my activities is not possible because I am writing a series of fitness articles for BU Today. Chris comes back with a suggestion. After evaluating my range of motion by having me stretch forward, backward, and side-to-side, he demonstrates a series of low-impact abdominal exercises that will strengthen my lower back. The first one is very simple. I lie face-up and tighten my stomach muscles for 10-second intervals. Then I slowly raise each knee to my chest for a series of 20 repetitions. Finally, Chris gives me two three-pound dumbbells and instructs me to raise each arm high above my head before lowering them back to my waist, as if I’m swimming the backstroke.

“By stabilizing the muscles around your pelvis,” he explains, “we’ll reduce the stress on the joints, which is causing those muscle spasms. You can also do these exercises at home.”

We decide that for the time being at least I should refrain from running and riding my bike, because crouching over the handlebars is particularly painful. I also agree, somewhat reluctantly, to take a break from spinning class.   

In the meantime, Chris promises to be in touch with my personal trainer, Stephanie McNamara (SED’07), to warn her about exercises I should not do. Before leaving the Ryan Center, he has me lie on an icepack. Outside, it is 17 degrees. Inside, I’m freezing my lower back into a state of relative calm.

Guilt, Cravings, and Hard Work
I have to be honest — between the back injury, work, and the three inches of ice on the sidewalks around my home, the office, and the gym, I have not been diligent in my daily pilgrimages to the FitRec Center. I feel like a failure.

I try to cheer up by reminding myself that according to my scale at home, I’ve lost three pounds in the past three weeks. Curiously, this encouraging information doesn’t stifle a craving for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream, which confirms my suspicion: I’m a little depressed.      

Trainer Stephanie, bless her, remains remarkably cheerful. “Stuff like this happens all the time,” she assures me. “We’ll alter your workouts, your body will heal, and then we’ll forge ahead as planned.”

I confess that while I haven’t been making it to the gym five days a week, I’m still walking at least two and a half miles a day. “That’s good,” Stephanie says. “In the meantime, since you’re not burning as much fat, try to reduce your calorie intake.”

I nod, guiltily thinking about the Thai food I’d inhaled the previous night. “Don’t worry,” Stephanie says. “We’re going to get through this.”

In lieu of the squats, lunges, and crunches she started me on two weeks ago, Stephanie intersperses my resistance training with 10-minute bouts of cardio exercises. I warm up on the upper body ergometer, or UBE, a machine that strengthens the biceps and shoulders. After five minutes, my arms feel like they’re going to fall off. By the time I’m finished, I don’t feel my arms at all.

“Okay,” Stephanie says, clapping her hands. “Let’s work on your abs!”

Next, instead of my regular floor exercises, she leads me to a leverage crunch machine, which allows the user to do crunches that don’t strain the back. I complete 4 sets of 25 crunches, varying my positions to target my lower abdominal and oblique muscles.

Afterward, we move to machines that work the quads and hamstrings, followed by a visit to the bench press. I lie down, and Stephanie hands me a 50-pound free weight. My arms wobble.

“Is your back hurting?” she asks.

“No more than usual,” I say. “But I’m kind of afraid I’m going to drop this and die.”

“Don’t worry,” she replies, laughing. “I’m right here to spot you.”

After 2 sets of 15 repetitions, my biceps are burning, and my back is beginning to twinge.

“That’s our cue to lay off the resistance training,” Stephanie says. “Come on, let’s do bike sprints.”

While riding the recumbent bike is not as rigorous as a 45-minute spinning class, it does provide a challenging workout, particularly when interspersing hill climbs with rapid bouts of pedaling. I increase my resistance every two minutes, and by the time the 10-minute ride is over, my heart rate is up to 189 beats per minute and I’m breathing heavily. This will be a good exercise to do on my own.

We finish up with a second set of crunches and close the session with a series of stretches. “It’s extremely important to stretch after every workout,” Stephanie tells me, “especially if your muscles are already sore, because it increases your range of motion and flexibility.”

I sit on the floor with my legs extended and slowly lower my torso in an attempt to touch my chin to my knee. There’s an eight-inch gap between my head and my leg, but I’m pleased that I can at least touch my toes. Next, I lie on my back, bring one knee to my chest, and turn my head toward my extended leg. I hold it, return to the starting position, and then reverse. It’s not very exciting, but I admit that it prevents my muscles from stiffening.  

My back pain takes a vacation for the rest of the day, but by 10 p.m., it has returned, throbbing and making weird popping noises. I take refuge in Advil. The next day I’m back at the gym, using the recumbent bike, UBE, and elliptical machine. I even throw in four sets of crunches for good measure. That night, the pain keeps me awake.

I lie there, thinking about my next visit with Chris. I’m hoping he’ll have some answers, but I’m not sure whether I want him to tell me to persevere or just give up.

Care to swap stories of workout woes and infuriating injuries? E-mail Vicky Waltz at vwaltz@bu.edu.