Working Out Towards Recovery

Six months after I ‘froze’ my sports centre membership when I was too biopsied to work out, today was the day that I felt thawed enough to unfreeze it. Yes, I returned to the gym.

And oh yes, it was good to be back. The familiar smell of foam mats, body odour and attempts to disguise it; the row of TVs with subtitles; the queue for the drinking water; and the motivational tunes: Skepta is going to get me exercising. It was good to get my muscles moving and endorphins flowing, and it was good just to get back to another thing that I used to do before cancer so rudely interrupted my routines.

Returning to the gym after six months’ cancer treatment gave me measurements of the deterioration of my physical fitness that I was already aware had taken place. Where I used to pedal at level 7, I could only now only sustain level 3. The stretching machine which would hold my leg at a 100-degree angle could only take it to 80. And even without a way of precisely measuring it, I could feel in my bones that my bendiness was significantly less bendy, and my flexibility was down to about the level of a stick of rock. It’s a very good job that the clientele of the gym I go to is very diverse, from the greek gods bench pressing to hone their already perfectly-honed figures to the noticeably out-of-shape doing a bit of light movement to stop themselves seizing up altogether.

The deterioration of my physical fitness has been one of the more dispiriting aspects of the cancer experience. Perhaps that may surprise you: surely the life-threatening illness, the invasive surgery, the waiting for test results, the painful side effects were worse? Maybe I’m odd – actually, certainly I’m odd – but that stuff I took in my stride. The enforced couch potato lifestyle, on the other hand, left me so aware of my lack of exercise that I could almost feel the tone departing from my muscles and the energy draining from my body. I am jellyfish.

Thus far, this post has made it sound like I was, if not an actual body-builder, then at the very least, passably fit. The truth is that I have always been overweight and unfit, and am now more so than ever. The gym workouts – along with swimming and yoga – were my way of stopping poor fitness descending into morbid slobbishness. It kept up a level of fitness just above the bottom of the pool. It was my safety net, and for six months, it has been in suspension. I did have a fourth method of exercise – cycling – but I had to stop that two summers ago when I broke my ankle stepping into a well-camouflaged hole at a festival, totally sober. It took 14 months and surgery to sort out that particular injury (there were complications, not least of all long waiting lists and NHS understaffing). In fact, it was the day after I got the all-clear for the ankle that I found out that I had cancer. Way to go, timing gods.

So when I announced on social media that I was back at the gym and friends cried in alarm that I must not overdo it, then I quickly reassured them. Never fear, good people, there is seriously no danger of that. Even before cancer, I was one of those gym-goers who puts on the gear and takes a smartphone and a good book to read on the seated bike. If fact, I posted said social media update from said seated bike. True to form, membership restored, I resumed my old habits and as well as posting the status update got through several WhatsApp conversations and a chapter of Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl whilst pedalling. I’m sure it is just a coincidence that I am currently reading this particular book, in which a woman describes her health struggles in great detail and with flippant humour.

So this, you see, is why the loss of my exercise routine dispirited me more than being staple-gunned, cut open or cooked from the inside. It is because I could have done better. I could have done more exercise, both before and during my cancer treatment; I could have eaten less and more healthily; I could have looked after myself more effectively. Excess weight increases cancer risk and increases oedema risk. That other stuff – the surgery and so forth – I have no control over. That’s easy to face. My own weaknesses and shortcomings are very much less so.

Never mind. I did half an hour on the bike, lots of stretches, and plenty of weights reps with my legs. Upper-body working-out was rather more cautious and less strenuous, due to the surgical scars, sore skin, oedema and such like, but I did some. I did an hour altogether. As I keep this going, my rusted joints with loosen and my flaccid muscle tone will slowly return. I may even get fit.

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