I Broke My Neck at the Gym and It Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About Fitness
It took a life-threatening injury for me to learn what being healthy is really about.
It had been a strange few months leading up to my move to Indonesia. I had spent the summer in a fast-paced physical production horticulture job, where my mornings started at 6:00 and I was biking 7.5 miles to work and back. I could easily lift 50 heavy trays of soaking wet clay pots with soil in them for eight hours a day-it was part of the job.
Come fall, I went back to a less physically demanding lifestyle as a student, and I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer midway through the semester. The fix: a restricted diet of bland carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and not a lot of fiber. Even though I was still walking about 6 miles a day, the transition from my normal high-fat, low-carb diet made me gain about 10 pounds over the next four months leading up to graduation.
That winter, I was offered an office job with an international organization in Indonesia. I had a yearlong contract and set some fitness goals based on my new lifestyle.
Subconsciously, I'd already internalized that with a sedentary occupation, I'd probably never get back to my previous fitness level. Nonetheless, I set out to work out at least 30 minutes a day five times a week, mixing in cardio with some weights. (Related: 10 Ways Your Office Is Harming Your Health)
While there was nothing wrong with that goal, I set it to fulfill this overwhelming obligation to lose weight so that I looked better. It had nothing to do with how I was feeling while doing it. The very last thing I expected was for the makeshift gym at work to be the place where I would finally learn to love my body for what it can do, rather than for how it looks. (Related: Why the "Fit Is the New Skinny" Movement Is Still a Problem)
What sparked that realization was an ill-fated loss of balance during a yoga-inspired headstand against a wall. I smashed three vertebrae in my neck and spent weeks in a poorly equipped Indonesian hospital wondering if I would walk again.
The first couple days in the hospital were harrowing. Between red-hued hallucinations brought on by the benzodiazepines being pumped into my IV, I heard talk about flying me to Singapore to be surgically fitted with a halo, which would immobilize my neck for as long as three months.
It might sound silly, but all I could think about was how much of an inconvenience that would be. Not being able to move for three months would completely uproot my daily routine in a foreign country I had only called home for two months. Taking a motorcycle taxi to work, sitting at my desk for a few hours, working out, eating lunch, taking a motorcycle taxi home, walking my dog- it was still so new to me in a place that was so stressfully unlike home-and this incident was about to make it a heck of a lot worse.
Luckily, the halo proved to be unnecessary and doctors informed me that I was going to make a full recovery without surgery. I was told that my fall took the tips off of three of my spinous processes-the little "bumps" you can see on your neck and back when you bend over. These little bits of broken bone would never reattach, but my body would absorb them over time (aren't humans amazing?).
During my recovery, I gained another 10 pounds. It was 95 degrees out most days and the neck brace was stifling. Once I was discharged from the hospital and back home, I found myself ordering fast food and sugary coffee drinks instead of going out and getting groceries. Once I could get out of bed, walking my big dog sent shooting pains down my arm, and I always feared she would lunge and give my tender, recovering neck whiplash. (Related: 6 Things Every Runner Experiences When Coming Back from Injury)
Every morning when I woke up, I had to work through the pain and stiffness-fighting for the will to leave my bed. Eventually, that got a little bit easier. Morning stretches to alleviate spasms transformed from a rote obligation into an exercise in gratitude as my range of motion slowly began to return. After two weeks I could leave the brace behind, after three I could walk around, and after four I was back at work.
Now nine months into my recovery, the injuries are still visible on an X-ray simply because of the missing parts of bone in my neck. My muscles have reattached to what remains, but I still struggle with a small amount of residual pain. Exercise and daily stretching have helped a great deal with managing the pain in my ongoing recovery.
A New Outlook
However long and painful my road to wellness has been, plunging into the depths of my psyche really screwed my head on straight (metaphorically and literally) about why fitness and good health are important to me. While it may sound cliché, it's because of this experience that I really learned to enjoy and appreciate the fact that I can move. (Related: How I Overcame an Injury-and Why I Can't Wait to Get Back to Fitness)
Being able to stretch, take hikes, and do bodyweight exercises continues to prove what my body is capable of and what it has lived through. I imagine that later this year, I'll be able to get back to lifting weights, but that's not my center of focus. The fact that I feel good is what truly matters now. Eating better-in ways that nourish my body and gear it toward longevity-has also helped me lose some of the weight I gained during recovery. But the number on the scale is no longer important when it comes to my assessment of health.
I came awfully close to losing something I didn't even think to value: my mobility. Now, when I hike through a forest in Borneo, or on a mountain in Canada, my home, and contemplate what it means to be able to get somewhere on my own two feet, I'm grateful for the body I have in its entirety.
I don't think much about how it looks anymore because, in the blink of an eye, I learned that all those superficial concerns are absolutely useless. Today, I'm grateful for the places my body can take me-and at the end of the day, isn't the journey itself what fitness is all about?