woman sitting in leggings with workout gear on ground

Photo courtesy of @anonkrudsumlit/Twenty20

The words hit me like a ton of bricks: You can’t keep doing your workouts.”

I was sitting in the office of a prominent spine specialist, getting a prognosis on a back problem I had been dealing with on and off for six years. It was this chronic pain that initially got me into wellness; a physical therapist had recommended I incorporate yoga into my nonexistent workout routine, so I signed up for a weekly class at my gym. Before long I was a front-row regular — in addition to running on weekends, sweating through boot-camp sessions, and using my vacation time to find new beaches to surf. I became obsessive about pushing myself, thinking that this was the best thing I could do for my back. If I was stronger, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have any troubles.

But year after year my back pain actually worsened, and eventually (after twisting a bit too deeply during a particularly vigorous HIIT class) I landed in the ER because it had become excruciating. I just wanted this doctor to tell me what I could do to fix it. Physical therapy, massage therapy, 20 minutes of planks a day… whatever it was, I thought I’d do it. What I didn’t expect to hear was that the very routine I established in the hopes of becoming healthier was actually making things worse.

woman with headphones in

Photo courtesy of @nikitavantorin/Twenty20

As the doctor would go on to explain, I had a herniated disc — and all of that jumping, bending, running, crunching, and turning was pushing it further away from my spine and towards the nerves that ran along my spine. (Cue debilitating sciatica.) Can I still run?” I asked. The doctor solemnly shook his head. What about boot-camp workouts?” He gave me a look. Okay, but surfing is fine, right?” The doctor sighed loudly and then gave me a plaintive, No.”

What followed was one of the hardest periods in my life. For one thing, without that regular endorphin boost I found my mood plummeting. On my good days I was cranky, and on my bad days, I was straight-up depressed. It used to be that, if I was in a funk or needed to really think about something, I’d lace up my sneakers and go for a run. Now, I had no outlet for my emotions.

But the other thing that plagued me was guilt. I had spent the past few years immersing myself in the world of wellness, and during that time came to believe that if I wasn’t breaking a sweat and pushing my body to the limit, I was weak. My disposition worsened, as I became so focused on what I wasn’t doing.

woman standing away from camera with hand on hip

Photo courtesy of @briena/Twenty20

And I know I’m not alone in that mindset. Movement and mobility specialist Charlee Atkins, CSCS, has noticed this very compulsion with her New York clients. Everybody struggles with implementing recovery classes,” she explains. The problem, she adds, is that we don’t think about pre-hab” practices. Meaning, taking care of yourself instead of backtracking and having to slow down because you pushed yourself too hard.” It’s why she founded the low-impact class Le Stretch, as a counterpart to her high-energy Le Sweat (Opens in a new window).

The turning point for me came when, at the urging of my doctor, I started taking Pilates. My body was still in pain, so the movements my teacher had me do were very subtle. Needless to say, I never broke a sweat — but I’d leave each session feeling better than when I arrived, and by the end of the first month I actually felt like I could move — something that I hadn’t experienced in months. It was the happiest I had been since my last long run, only I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was worsening my condition.

From there, I slowly incorporated more and more low-impact workouts into my routine. (Hello, swimming!) I learned to really listen to my body — and to not be embarrassed if, say, during a yoga class I need to take child’s pose while everyone else is in a backbend because I know it will trigger my back. Instead of viewing my new habits as a sign of weakness, I realized it was a sign of strength.

And even if my back were to miraculously heal itself, I’d maintain a well-balanced regimen that isn’t so obsessive about high-impact movement. We never see marathon runners running all 26 miles every day of the week,” Atkins points out. This type of approach is a great way to tackle all workouts.”

As it turns out, sometimes doing the unhealthy” thing is actually the healthiest thing you can do for your body.

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.