Self Caring

Step One of the Rest of Your Life

Last updated: Sep 08, 2010

May Day in Annapolis, 2009

Caregivers and exercise: boring! How about caregivers saving their lives? More interesting? Please bear with me:

My story:

Exercise and I have a checkered past. I'm too uncoordinated for tennis, too fearful of skiing, and I don't know how to swim. Sports bore me. Then there's the not-so-small matter of time. Oh, I'd hit on different jags over the years. I jogged in the '70s, aerobicized in the '80s, then pretty much spent most of the '90s either in childbirth or sacked out on the couch.

Luckily I hit on walking soon after that. I've walked (sometimes sleepwalked) through caring for my children and then my parents. Walking is a great form of exercise for caregivers: easy, cheap, do-able year-round, and -- always important to time-pressed me -- you don't have to go anywhere special to do it. No skill required!

But you do have to take the first step. I know you're sick of hearing, Take care of yourself, exercise, blah blah blah. I know it may sound impossible. But self care is like walking itself. You can start very small but, with persistence, cover a lot of ground.

It's about putting one foot in front of the other.

My start:

As a beginner, those golden days of actually doing it were rare. In rain or snow, heat wave or deep freeze, I'd skip. Some days I'd meander a few houses down the road and turn around. "Just don't feel like it today. I'll try tomorrow." Sometimes I'd bring along one of my four kids or my Dad, and we'd walk at a 4-year-old's or an 84-year-old's pace -- great for bonding, not so great for calorie burning. Too often, I'd run out of time and never set foot out the door. You might say I liked the idea of walking more than the actual doing of it.

Then my neighbor had a heart attack.

Tom was 50. Like me, he'd never been the athletic type. Fortunately he was given an excellent prognosis following surgery to clear some minor blockage. As the weeks went on, whenever I saw him on the street, alive and apparently well, I'd feel relief.

Eventually I noticed I was seeing him a lot.

Rain or shine, he'd walk with dogged determination. No stopping at the first opportunity to chat with a neighbor. No 4-year-olds in tow. "He's a man with a mission," his wife confirmed.

The heart attack had happened in the spring. By summer's end, Tom was noticeably leaner. He walked faster. One day I complimented him, and he confirmed that he'd lost 25 pounds. He was putting in four miles a day, he explained, two circuits up and down our street.

Wow. Of all people! The contrast between his businesslike approach to walking and my casual one was evident in our midriffs.

The minute our conversation ended, I found myself rarin' to walk four miles, too. If he could do it, why not me? Why wait for my own scary wake-up call when I'd heard his?

My resolution:

I began shifting my walks to first thing in the morning, before any excuses, crises, or deadlines could crowd out the opportunity. Instead of showering when I woke up, I put on my walking clothes so that I'll be ready. I huffed and puffed. But the toughest challenge was mental. I had to adjust to investing the time.

My weight loss was less dramatic than Tom's, but then, I hadn't simultaneously begun post-heart-attack dietary reforms like he did. (That came later -"“ one step at a time, remember?) Other, unexpected benefits showed up quickly, though. My terrible insomnia waned. My back was less sore. Though never a morning person, I began the day more alert. My patience lengthened.

My attitude toward walking shaped up, too. Instead of postponing a hike at the slightest inconvenience, I now itch to get started. If it rains, I put on a slicker. The changing weather is a pleasant diversion, not a deal-breaker. When a bad case of strep throat grounded me a week, I felt a real sense of loss.

My wish for you:

I know that every caregiver has a different amount of time and flexibility available. I know that exercising is the last damn thing most stressed people want to think about (much less be nagged about). I'm sharing this little tale because for me, other people's stories "“ like Tom's "“ are more persuasive than boring lectures.

And you know what they say: A journey of a thousand steps begins with the first one.

I still skip the occasional day's walk. I can't always get my schedule, my health, and my mood to coordinate. If I'm feeling too rushed to devote a full hour, I cut the walk short. But a big difference is that I no longer let more than one or two such days pass in a row. All I have to do is think about Tom, logging his miles as if his life depended on it.

How many lives are depending on you?