How CrossFit Saved This Doctor's Health

I practiced what I preached for the most part. The part that I didn't practice was regular physical activity. I lacked motivation to go to the gym. But I had to do something.
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"I'm too young for this," I thought to myself as I rose out of bed and every joint in my body screamed for me to lie back down. My back was so stiff that I could barely stand up straight. I was exhausted after a sleepless night, as my back pain prevented me from finding a comfortable position. My energy level was about as high as the temperature outside at the dead of winter, and my desire to engage in physical activity was about as fired up as an ice cube.

"I'm really too young for this," I said out loud to myself.

At 44 years old, I had already accomplished so much. I enjoyed a great career as a physician, teaching and coaching others to get healthy and happy through stress management, meditation practices, healthy eating, physical activity and accessing love in all its forms -- social, self and spiritual. Indeed, I practiced what I preached for the most part. The part that I didn't practice was regular physical activity. I lacked motivation to go to the gym. I found going to a nameless, faceless gym was too boring, and in any case, my 30-year back injury from a car accident at the age of 15 prevented me from sticking to anything long term.

But I had to do something.

Not only was I lethargic and achy, I was also finding myself increasingly more lonely and left out as my boyfriend at the time was obsessed with his CrossFit gym (lovingly called a "box"). He was more interested in rushing to the box than have breakfast with me and talking about the WOD (work out of the day) than about my not-so-exciting (I can admit this now) work day. And so I often felt left out and insecure about the ever-increasing fat and flab on my body.

So I decided to give CrossFit a try, on the pretense of aiming to save my relationship, but really to save my own health.

Initially, I was scared, and the program was hard. I stuck with it. The first year, I focused on strengthening my core, especially my back. I avoided lifting heavy weights and worked on improving my metabolic conditioning, gymnastics moves and getting stronger with exercises that used my own body weight. A year and a half into it, I started participating with the Olympic weight lifting activities.

I am now 46 years old, and I am in the best shape of my life. My core is solid, and I have more strength, agility, mobility and flexibility then people who are 20 years younger. Not that I am swinging in trees every day (though I have been known to do so on occasion), but I am doing pull ups and gymnastics moves that I couldn't even do as a teenager. I'm tougher physically and psychologically. Challenges in life neither deter me nor do they scare me from pushing forward and I have the energy to do it. In addition, I am happier. I have a community that supports me as I support them, and we keep each other on track as we maintain a healthy lifestyle together.

If you are not familiar with what happens at CrossFit, you are probably familiar with the bad rap it has gotten of late. It has been put down as being a cult, a place where people only get injured, too intense, too taxing on the human body, or too stupid. Created by Greg Glassman in the 1980s, CrossFit is designed as a general physical preparedness program optimizing physical competence, improving cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. The program uses weights, one's own body weight and flexibility, and the outdoors. Yes, it is intense. Yes, sometimes it can seem like the members are cult-like. Yes, injuries can happen. When people worry about their time or increasing the weight they are lifting, they can forget about their form and being in the process of doing the movement or technique well, and they can get hurt. And yes, if a good coach isn't present, injuries are more likely to happen.

But then again, the truth is that people get stupid or at least do stupid things and get hurt all the time and it has nothing to do with CrossFit. It's human nature to act without thinking or to engage in activities that aren't necessarily healthy. In any sport or daily life activity, when you are not focused, paying attention, mindful of your body or your coach if you have one, you have an increased likelihood of getting hurt.

How many times have you slipped or tripped walking up the stairs? How many times are you so focused on where you are going when driving that you are not paying attention to the potholes or other cars? How many of you have carpal tunnel syndrome in one or both wrists from spending long hours typing on the computer?

The need to be mindful and pay attention transcends every aspect of your life. You are more likely to get hurt by sitting on the couch or working on your computer. You are more likely to get sick because you do not have any outlets of relief for your stress -- you do not have a community to support, an exercise regimen you love that you will stick to, a dietary lifestyle that you can uphold because you share it with others and a sense of pride and purpose because you are giving back.

Are you aware that when you are actively engaged in exercise that involves multiple muscle groups, variability of motion and active focus, you are engaging new brain cells? Evidence is also pointing to the notion that variability of functional movement is supports better health. In other words, exercise and physical activity that involves variability or the use of different muscle groups, coordination, and sensory perception at the same time, is good for you and your brain. In contrast, when you don't move it, you lose it, not only in muscle strength but brain power. Indeed, most injuries presenting at my office and likely most doctor's offices do not happen because of exercise but because the person has been leading a sedentary lifestyle and has pulled their back or another muscle group out while leaning over trying to pick up their keys from the ground or getting out of the car.

I for one I had spent so much time poring over books, sitting in cars or in front of a computer, and my body was deteriorating before its time. I had forgotten that my body was meant to co-exist with nature, running, walking, lifting, climbing, squatting and jumping. I had lost touch with the notion that I needed a physical shell that was both strong and protective, agile and full of robust energy so that I could keep moving through life, not only just existing but truly thriving. I forgot that no life is a healthy life for me without a community to share it with.

I am not saying CrossFit is a sport that is right for everyone. I am saying that it is perfect for me because of the coaching, the friendships, the variability, the focus on a healthy lifestyle, and getting me into the best shape of my life, physically, mentally and spiritually.

What I recommend to you is to find a physical activity that is right for you that you enjoy, that you will stick to and that hopefully, comes along with a community. I am telling you that it is possible to feel like you have never been stronger and healthier at any age, because that is what CrossFit did for me. I am also advising you that if you do decide to do any sport, especially an intense one like CrossFit, do your research. Make sure you have a good coach or teacher, one who has had many years of experience especially with people who have had injuries, and who works in a qualified affiliate "box." Make sure you stay mindful and pay attention to your body's signals. And most of all, make sure you have fun.

As for me, I'm immensely grateful to my family and coaches at CrossFit Newton and CrossFit TakeOff for saving this doctor's health!

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