Exercise and Reinforcing Spirals

I’ve written about my mother being self-conscious about her fat. Afraid of other people thinking she was fat, afraid of not being able to walk far enough, of not being able to find a chair that fit, of being unable to defend herself if physically attacked. Mom was also self-conscious of being out of shape and having an “ignorant-sounding” accent.*

Mom broke her leg when I was 10. She was 45. Spending months with her left leg in a cast from hip to toes probably atrophied some muscles. I quickly learned to tighten my core muscles so I could help her up off the couch without hurting my back. I don’t recall Mom doing physical therapy when the cast got off; I do recall that after that year she gardened less, walked less, and generally seemed less active.  Arthritis seemed to bother her more; her back pain became more severe.  She began to see a chiropractor regularly.

It was a few years after the cast came off that Mom’s best friend, who she’d routinely gone shopping and to lunch with, ended up moving away.  During prior summers Mom and her best friend would load up kids, coolers, blankets, towels, and so forth and take us off to one of the local parks most every day.  Without her friend, though, Mom decided the park was too crowded. Wrangling kids and a cooler and blankets and towels and so forth around a park may not have been all that much activity, but it’s certainly functional fitness.

By the time I was 15 or 16 I was doing all the Christmas shopping so that Mom could “avoid the crowds” at the mall; a few years later Mom confessed that she didn’t think she could walk the length of the mall anymore.  I carried a pillow into movies so she could sit more comfortably, offered my arm for support when Mom climbed stairs, or pulled her up if she were on a low seat or the floor. This continued through college, until I moved out. I was 25 then; Mom was 59.

How much of her back and leg pain was due to injuries and arthritis, and how much was due to muscles that weren’t strong enough to work effectively?  I don’t know. I do think she had a reinforcing negative spiral: she exercised less because she felt out of shape; she became more out of shape because she exercised less.

I do know that I developed a self-image of myself as strong and capable due to spending my teen years in my self-appointed role as Mom’s caretaker.  I know that part of why I was frightened by injuring my knee was “I don’t have mobility problems, Mom does“.    And I know that one of my motivations to exercise is because it may not let me avoid my mother’s problems — but I’m fairly sure that NOT exercising would make me repeat them.


*Southern accents weren’t exactly “in” during the 70s in Seattle. One speech therapist blamed my lisp on Mom’s tendency to add “r”s to things like “warsh” and “Warshington”. Funny how Mom didn’t have a lisp, and mine went away with orthodontia and practice.

8 thoughts on “Exercise and Reinforcing Spirals

  1. Southern accents still aren’t popular. I very carefully speak with a neutral American accent when I am teaching in the Northeast. I have about a minute to establish myself as an authority, and a Tidewater accent would complicate things as accents South of the Mason Dixon line do tend to map to “backward” where I live.

    (You probably know this, but there’s a lot of variation in accents in the South. Ferinstance, the Tidewater accent doesn’t say warsh but does way wa-tuh for water, or win-duh for window).

    • I’ve heard variation among the accents of Southerners I’ve met, but I don’t know enough to place them. Mom was from Tennessee.

      Of course, in Boston R’s get dropped a lot. “Chowdah”, for example…

    • Oddly enough, my grandfather who was born in Ohio and spent the majority of his life there, did say “warsh”. It might be a generational thing as well as a regional thing.

      I used to be afraid to go out walking on my own for fear that I’d be in too much pain from my knee to get home, it kept me cooped up on perfectly glorious days. I’m still terrified of walking on my own over ice and snow because I have fallen and hurt myself too badly to walk without assistance. I get really out of shape during most of the winter, which is a shame because I adore cold weather otherwise.

  2. @godless heathen: two words: Yak Traks. At least that’s what mine are called. My daughter bought them for me so I could continue walking during crappy weather. (Actually, she was afraid I would slip on the ice and break something!) They work like sno-chains do on car tires (same principle), slip on over virtually any flat shoes, I wear my over Crocs, and prevent slipping! I was able to continue walking outdoors all last winter. Good luck!

  3. My mother is in her mid 50s and also has a lot of problems moving, and I too wonder how much of her knee problems cause her to be inactive and how much of her inactivity causes her to have knee problems.

    My father, my siblings, and I have all encouraged her to exercise. But she sees exercise only as a vehicle to fat loss, and has given up on being thin, and so she has no interest at all.

    I have two brothers close to my age and size. I do strength training for half an hour once or twice a week, and they don’t. They have knee pain and I do not.

  4. I’ve definitely experienced the downward spiral myself. I’ve been out of the exercise habit for awhile now, and trying to get back into it. I used to be able to walk four miles in an hour five days a week and feel great! Now I walk about a mile and a half in half an hour three days a week and my body aches and screams at me nearly the entire time. It’s so hard to get up the motivation to go walk when I know it’s going to be difficult, and then I get down on myself for letting my fitness go so far downhill and that doesn’t help either.

    I’m just hoping I can get the spiral to start going in the other direction, however slowly it may be taking. Once I get more into the habit of doing my little walks my body will get more used to it and it will start feeling better and thus motivating me to keep moving more.

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