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Back to Running

How does one run with a bad back? Sometimes better than walking the same distance. I haven't been involved in an exercise routine for about a year, since my back "went out." It is now the end of September and almost through the second and last week of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Last night watching the track and field events I decided to get off the sofa and run out into the street.

I have a set of free weights and workout bench in the garage, but since I let it get so messy out there I have no room to use them. Plus it gets too hot in that enclosed space. The street is much cooler, even here in the South. And even though a few months ago my knees had given me pain when I walk up or down stairs, at the moment that is gone and it's time to take advantage of that departure.

While most of my life I have been in decent physical condition, especially during my two years in the Army, I have had never maintained any formal type of exercise regimen. Especially after acquiring a chronic lower back problem. While working in a land survey crew for the Detroit Edison Company around 1975 I attempted to move with a shovel a small amount of clay from the top of a larger pile of it to allow a line of sight. Unfortunately the clay didn't budge but by back did, straining the muscles in my lower back. The muscles froze up to protect the spinal column from damaging pinched nerves I suspect. And that event gets repeated almost annually, usually as a result of some very simple maneuver, like bending and turning sideways or picking up trash. It takes about a week to return to a normal walking motion, making me look initially like I am 98 rather than my real 48 years of age! But the long term damage is that the muscles have lost a great deal of their elasticity, making things I've long enjoyed like long, long walks, a thing of the past. Some years after the event I found I really did need to get the rest of my body in shape.

In 1989 Melissa and I moved into a rather new apartment complex just south of Ypsilanti, MI, and they had an exercise room filled with all kinds of dangerous equipment on which one could potentially impale themselves. But I started using the facility anyway because I knew we would continue our practice of finding a new apartment every year or two, and I was tired of having my back go out every time we moved. I had to get in shape. So I used the equipment regularly to regain some healthy muscle tone, looking at Elba Island from US 80not to bulk up he-man style. I just wanted to be able to challenge myself physically without fear of bodily collapse while carrying boxes and furniture. The exercising helped firm up muscles that would help keep my skeletal frame in better alignment, much like guy-wires hold up telephone poles. Since that time I have kept up a fairly regular program of weight lifting. And it has helped my lower back problem, though not eliminating it entirely. I still find I can't walk for great distances without resting my back to get it limber again. And every once in a while it would still give out. The last time was just a couple months ago, but last Christmas or before, while I was picking up garbage and litter strewn by travelers along my favorite stretch of road along the salt marsh, all the bending and stooping US 80 driving East 15 miles from Tybee Island took its toll and I have not touched the weights since then. But increasing guilt and now watching the Olympics prodded me off my couch to return to some type of exercise routine. So last night I ran.

Actually in a way I had spent much of my life running. Running away from things, like responsibility, from reality, from God, from work. But little by little all these things would catch up to me. God and reality would find me in 1976, as I found Him and quit the drug life-style that hindered me more than I could have realized. Responsibility would find me in 1979 when I fell in love and married, and then found real work to support us both. Then I would be running for things rather than away from things. And last night I returned to running, though in a literal sense.

I wasn't sure how that would work, if I would find the energy to break out of my tendency and habit of relaxation (nay, can I admit, laziness?). Not to mention the question of whether my back would support this endeavor. But it seems that actually running allows more of my torso muscles to flex to keep me supported all around, rather than, like walking, where the tendency is to let the stomach muscles relax and compel the back do all the work. Running seems to work all of them in concert, that is, if I don't push them too hard.

So after a warm-up of about 90 seconds (OK, I know you should spend at least twice that) I ran down our driveway out into the street and into a quiet early Fall twilight. It was 7:30 p.m. and the streets were empty. A deep twilight navy decorated the sky to the East while the last shades of a pale gold bathed the western horizon. Stars and planets had appeared, the temperature was cool, and there were few barking dogs to spoil a gorgeous evening here on the salt marsh of these local Georgia barrier islands. I wasn't gone long, maybe 55 minutes, and maybe slightly more than two miles. I didn't want to strain anything the first time out. By taking it relatively easy my body didn't rebel much at all. After winding my way around my darkening subdivision I returned home with an energized heartbeat and blood pressure. But I was not totally whacked out. The big test really would be getting out there the next night, and the ones after that. There's not an incredible amount of joy exercising alone, which makes the challenge of the will all the more striking. My muscles did burn the next morning, revealing just how many of them had not been getting the stress and strain they need to keep in the most fit condition. But it felt good.

The next evening, after a tiring day at the office, I debated whether to go out running right after I got home or wait until about 7:30 again. After a brief rest upon arriving home, anticipating just laying on the floor and going to sleep, I suddenly jumped up and decided to get outside again. Because of the muscle soreness I felt I shouldn't run quite as far as the previous evening but the distance was effective enough anyway. I feel even more sore, which is normal after a prolonged period of inactivity, but not enough to feel crippled. And it even feels pretty good, this soreness. I do hope to continue this pace; after all what is just a half hour out of one's day for the health and well-being of one's body? But I know it won't be easy, and maybe it shouldn't be. So my goal is to return to running night after night. It feels good to be able to actually feel one's muscles again. It makes me think that I really do use them while moving around.

As a final word on the subject I should mention something that I have not heard by those suffering from the dreaded back problem. And that is if one continuously keeps one's stomach muscles taut, much like the guy on the beach trying to impress the girls, the back has a far easier time maintaining good health. It doesn't have to do it alone if it gets the stomach to help. Anytime one moves around, stoops over, twists and turns, the stomach muscles should be consciously flexed to support the back. This is a far cry for the usual practice of just using the fewest amount of muscles required to perform the act desired. This is a habit dreadfully difficult to break by most Americans because there is so much conscious effort required in remembering to hold in your stomach, remembering to use one's muscles. Just try it. But I feel strongly that if you do this you will have far fewer back problems. It can be the most innocuous act that can cause the back to go out. One little slip of forgetfulness at the wrong time. For me it happened last when I turned and bent over to pick up a trash bag I wanted to throw out. Fortunately only one side of my back froze up, but one needs to be vigilant or a lot more back problems will be painfully experienced.

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