How Exercise Helped my Recovery

Before my accident, I was a really active person. I loved to exercise. I was a regular at the gym. I either cycled or ran to and from work. I loved going for long walks with the girls at the weekend. I just loved being out and about and being active.

However, when you’re faced with a brain injury, however mild or severe, the immediate thoughts and advice from friends, family & physicians, is to rest up. So that’s exactly what I did…

I would lie around all day, not able to read, struggling to watch TV; doing very, very little.

Mental v Physical Fatigue

I soon realised that whilst my mind was physically exhausted my body wasn’t – so maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m struggling to sleep? So I started going for short walks (my body was still recovering from severe whip lash as well as neck and back spasms so I wasn’t able for much more) and I never looked back.

The fresh air… The sense of achievement as I felt my body able to walk further and faster… The sense of relief as the fog in my head would lift… The absolute delight when I found myself sleeping more. Exercise was always something I relied on as part of my life, but I could tell straight away that it was also going to play a huge role in my recovery.

Exercise Progression

As the weeks went on I progressed to running and I also decided to go back to the gym. However, I knew that I was going to be limited in terms of what I could do there. I wasn’t naive, or stupid, enough to think that I could go in and go straight back to doing everything I was doing before my accident. I needed workouts that wouldn’t require too much concentration and would limit movement in front of my eyes or impact on my brain.

So, I reached out to a personal trainer in my gym to help me identify what I could and couldn’t do. I also felt that I needed someone with me incase anything went wrong. I needed professional support.

My trainer was Noel and he would go on to become the single most important person in my recovery.

Together we learned to:

  1. Avoid busy times as even the noise of too many other people training at the same time could be too much for me.
  2. Never push myself if I felt my head getting any worse whilst there. If I felt any additional pain I would just stop the session and go home; have a nap or do some mindfulness. There was always tomorrow.
  3. Say NO. If something affected my head in any negative way I learned to say no and not do it, e.g. moving anything up and down in front of my eyes was an absolute NO-NO.
  4. Listen to my brain. There were certain things I just point blank refused to even try, as even the thought of it would cause a sudden burst of pain in my head for absolutely no reason. It was like my head was telling me to not even try it and so I would listen. If there is potential risk to your brain, DON’T EVEN TRY IT!
  5. Switch Off. The whole point of having a trainer was so that I didn’t have to think about anything myself while I was there. Sometimes even just counting my reps would confuse me and stress me out. So I stopped. Noel would do it. I just did as instructed and didn’t have to think for myself, which meant that my brain got to rest.

Relief

For me, the pros of exercising outweighed the cons 100:1! I would feel such a relief in the pain in my head. I mean I always had some pain, but the pain was so much less when I exercised. The fog would lift. I would be in a better mood. The stress and anxiety I was carrying around with me would vanish.

I also slowly built up the confidence to try some classes at the gym (even spinning!), but I would always make sure I was as far from the speakers as possible. I would wear headphones to block out as much additional noise as I could and I would just sit out the parts that could affect my brain – again moving anything in front of my eyes, too much jumping, etc.

Control

Noel once said to me that he thinks I enjoy exercising so much because it gave me back some element of control in my life. And he was right!

There were so many aspects of my recovery that I couldn’t control. Some weeks I would see improvements but other weeks, even when I had done everything perfectly in terms of managing my symptoms, I may not see any improvement at all. It was just out of my control.

But when I exercised I could control my progress and I could see improvements. I could see and feel myself getting fitter and stronger every week. It gave me something to work towards and it was something I could physically see changing and improving.

It meant I could focus my competitive streak on exercise as opposed to on my recovery, which more often than not led to disappointment. It may sound vain but it wasn’t about the physical benefits for me. It was about saying “I’m going to squat 50kg in 8 weeks time” and achieving that or, “I’m going to run 5km in under 30 minutes” and achieving that. I had such little control in every other aspect of my life, but exercise gave me something that I could control. It gave me a sense of achievement, as well as having numerous benefits for my brain!

Benefits of Exercise

The main benefits of exercising for me were:

  • Pain relief
  • Stress/Anxiety relief
  • It lifted my mood when I was feeling down (all those endorphins really do help with depression)
  • It helped me to manage my fatigue
  • It gave me something to work towards
  • It gave me back an element of control in my life
  • It helped me to build back up my confidence

Yoga

Exercise isn’t just about running and lifting weights though. Yoga was a very important part of my exercise routine also. It was calming, relaxing and still had all of the benefits of more traditional exercise. I found yoga was great for the days I had been at work or if I was feeling particularly sluggish and didn’t have the energy for a more physically demanding workout. However, when it came to a day where I was particularly stressed or angry, nothing could beat running for me!

Luckily, my gym offered free yoga classes so I was able to attend yoga twice a week. Most often I would attend in the morning to relax me for the day ahead. It helped me to relax and unwind, especially before a Rehab appointment or brain scan.