Exercising with a brain injury: finding the right sport

Last week I hinted at this topic, but wasn’t able to write a coherent post due to brain fog. But good news, the fog has lifted! And so I could finally write the post I wanted to write last week.

A post about *drumroll* exercise! Well, the title probably gave that one away. You’ll now be either enthusiastic; because you love to exercise or a bit exasperated as the thought alone is tiring enough. My own reaction switched between these two for quite some time. Nowadays I fall into the first category. Since I found something I could actually do and keep doing. But it sure didn’t start out like this.

We all know that exercising is good for us. You’ll feel better, have more energy and increase your life span simply by being physically active. Working out can help with weight loss, reduces the risk for cardio vascular conditions and you’ll even feel better thanks to the release of endorphins. Having a brain injury doesn’t change any of this. It fact it even gives an extra motivation to exercise. Exercising increases the blood flow to your brain, which means more nutrition and oxygen for your brain cells. Also exercising helps with cognition, with tasks like remembering, processing information and maintaining attention. For the whole list, click here.

Trying different things

When I read this in the early stages, I vowed to help my brain as much as possible and (hopefully) gain some muscles as a side benefit. However, I discovered quickly that finding the right kind of exercise was the real challenge. In the beginning, I still had a gym membership so I decided to start there. But, there’s nothing like hitting your head against a figurative wall, to realize things don’t work. At the gym there (naturally) were different screens playing different tv-channels, loud and upbeat music and other people working out. Being sensitive to crowds, lights and sound not a very convenient location.

On to the next sport to try; tai chi. I had heard that other survivors really benefited from this, so I took a lesson to try it out. It wasn’t long before I realized I wasn’t one of those people. Doing really slow motions for an hour and a half in a room filled with people, turned out to be more stressful than relaxing. Seeing the movements of other people out of the corner of your eye, while trying to slowly balance on one foot, was next to impossible. And so it was time for the next sport: running.

At that time everyone was running or jogging, so why not me? It sounded like an ideal sport. You could do it at anytime, anywhere and you would be outside. I even had the clothes and shoes in my closet from an earlier attempt a few years before. It didn’t take long however, to discover the major difficulty namely: Where to run?

If I started running from my home, I was in the middle of a busy neighbourhood. Which meant cars, bicycles and having to cross a lot of streets. In other words a lot of sounds and movement and having pay attention at all times. Not ideal. So I tried running at the beach. The problem here was that getting to and from the beach in itself was already taxing. Having to run in between with the constant sound and feeling of the sea and the wind, was a little too much excitement for me.

The next sport went slightly better. The DIY version of exercising, or in other words choose a YouTube channel and follow along in your living room. I tried Pilates, since I had done that years before as well. Miraculously, I managed to keep it up quite nicely. And I actually started to feel better, both physically and mentally. But doing something alone in your living room requires a lot of self-motivation. And you wouldn’t leave the house. As a result the walls started to close in on me, especially after having bad days when I wouldn’t leave the house anyway. So after one particular holiday I just couldn’t do it any more.

Last try

Just before I gave up on exercising, someone alerted me on a flyer of swimming for people with a brain injury. Which would mean going some place, meeting people with a similar experience, being in a small group and of course swimming! I was filled with so much optimism that I forgot all the things rehabilitation taught me. So the first time I forgot my sunglasses, my earplugs and the fact that I can’t handle as much as I used to do. So I swam like a fish and was feeling on top of the world. Well, until the next day. Since I went at full speed over my limits, I couldn’t cycle or walk for more than three steps for the next four days. A lesson that I’ll not forget easily.

Swimming gives me the opportunity to try and stop comparing myself to the abilities of others. When I’m in the water I can keep practising to listen to my body and to celebrate if I’m able to swim an extra lane. Small steps. I’m very grateful for this initiative (thanks to the Edwin van der Sar Foundation, both links to Dutch sites). Exercising feels good. You know you’re doing something beneficial for your physical and mental well-being. I hope that initiatives like this become more commonplace. So that no matter your abilities or where you live, you can still exercise somewhere.

What about you, do you exercise? If so, what kind? Do you like it or do you have to put your mind to it? If not, is it by choice or do obstacles keep you from exercising?

2 Replies to “Exercising with a brain injury: finding the right sport”

  1. You kept experimenting until you found the right thing for you. Your are so inspiring. It took me years between each failed attempt and trying again lol. It is simple: I am tired of being exhausted so now I work with a trainer. He is a genius because he has first focused on managing anxiety and fear, and that has helped my confidence. There is a little gym with virtually no people because every other location and sport are too loud and stimulating.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! (I see it as an upside of my very stubborn nature 😉 )
      But you did find something eventually! Good to hear that it helps with your confidence and that you found a place and a trainer that benefit and help you. I hope that it’ll also help with the exhaustion!

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