The Art and Science of Fitness | To optimise life, stop taking it for granted

Dec 10, 2022 03:56 PM IST

Injuries are bound to happen, but they happen a lot more when we take things for granted. And when they do, besides being humble enough to learn from the incident, we must also have the right attitude. I share my experience

Last Sunday, I slipped and tumbled down 5-6 stairs. Much like Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, I was in bad shape, and worried that I wouldn't be able to put myself together again. For two-three days, I didn't know if I had broken a few bones and if so, where — in my spine, ribs or hip. It hurt to stand, turn, bend, cough, talk, laugh, sit, lie or do any movement or activity. I began to empathise with all the people who came to me with aches and pains during all my years of treatment. And for that reason, as strange as it may sound, injuries can be humbling.

So, I've learnt my lesson. I’m literally and figuratively moving ahead one step at a time, keeping my eyes, ears and all other senses fully attentive, thankful for the gift of life. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
So, I've learnt my lesson. I’m literally and figuratively moving ahead one step at a time, keeping my eyes, ears and all other senses fully attentive, thankful for the gift of life. (Shutterstock)

During the fall, everything had markedly slowed down for me. It reminded me of a famous scene in the movie, X-Men Apocalypse where Quicksilver — the superfast superhero from the Marvel universe — saves everyone at the X-mansion in half a second, moving at 12 times faster than the speed of sound. Before anyone could cry for help, he had already saved them. And here's why I felt this way.

Three things happened in that split second. First, my entire life flashed before my eyes (And I am a dreamer, so that does mean a lot of stuff). Second, using my medical background and having experience in dealing with pain for over two decades, I began to map (like the deductive Sherlock Holmes) which bones — the hip, spine, ankle, shin, shoulder, skull and so on— were going to break if I were to slip all the way down. I also contemplated all kinds of possible injuries that I would suffer — to my brain, kidney, liver, lungs and so on. Third, I was completely aware of what I needed to do, or at least attempt to do, to prevent that from happening.

Of course, Quicksilver and Sherlock Holmes are fictional characters, but we all do experience this once in a while. And the superpower isn't just about moving and thinking at incredible speeds, but about learning from such occurrences.

So now, let me take you through the events that led to my fall, which, to amuse you, I will call the "great downfall". Even though it may have happened in the morning, the first move in this chain of events took place the night before. Just before heading to the bedroom, I knocked off my shoes and went to the room which had my slippers. The lights were off in that room and I didn’t switch them on while putting on my slippers. When I wore my slippers, they felt a bit odd, but I didn’t bother checking why because they were at their usual spot.

The next morning, while I walked up the stairs to the terrace, my slippers felt a lot more slippery than before. And so I tread carefully. Our house-help was washing the terrace and there was soapy water all over the place. This made me even more cautious. While coming down, I held on to the railing, and put my first step extremely carefully. This didn't work, because I missed my grip on the railing and the stair and tumbled. Luckily, I broke my fall by successfully getting hold of the railing again.

My first reaction was to look all around to see if anyone had caught me in my awkward moment. Since no one had, my ego wasn’t hurt — but my back was. It was painful to get up. Every breath was like agony. Consumed with self-pity, I asked myself the question that most people do in these circumstances: Why me? And then, I pushed that thought away, because my mind reminded me that it could have been a lot worse: I thought of my cousin's husband who recently had a stroke and was in the ICU.

This then led me down a rabbit hole of interesting thoughts: I thought about Austrian neurologist and psychologist Victor Frankl’s takeaway from his time at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

This shift in my mindset, something I reinforce to the people I see with pain, helped me calm down and analyse the situation more logically. I was no longer feeling sorry for myself. I was clinically assessing the situation. My middle and lower back were too tender to touch. There was sharp shooting pain radiating down my leg. There was a good chance that I had fractured a couple of vertebral bones in my spine. Upon this assessment, I realised that I didn't need to add the burden of stressing to an already delicate situation. I regained control of my breathing and relaxed my muscles. I was following what Frankl mentioned in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

For the first two days, it was awful. Sleeping was a nightmare. But soon, things started to feel better. I was moving to the extent that I could without increasing the pain. Had I followed the standard advice given after such a fall, ie, to be stationary in bed without moving, my muscles would have cramped up even further (especially since it's now winter) and it would have taken me even longer to get back to regular life.

I wasn’t sure when I could go back to my clinical work. But I risked it and went to the clinic four days after my fall. A day in my life as a doctor involves listening very attentively to the patients for about 20-30 minutes, and examining them, which involves me bending and lifting. This is then followed by a 20-30 minute consultation where I discuss their issue with them and help them heal. Until this injury, I didn't realise how strenuous my work is.

As luck would have it, one of the patients was a 13-year-old girl struggling with lower back pain and pain radiating down both her legs. She struggled to take her own weight and climb the four stairs up to the clinic. Like anybody else, I forgot about my own pain when helping her move and examining her. It made me realise how powerful our minds can be, easily overpowering what we assume we can’t do when we're injured. Seeing this patient reinforced in me that my pain was far less than I made it out to be.

Now for the big reveal in the story of the "great downfall". It wasn't the soapy water on the floor (which I was used to). It all went back to me not putting on the light in the room that had my slippers in them, and the immediate feeling I had that something was wrong. Rewinding back to that moment and realising that I felt uncomfortable in those slippers but continued on with my night was my own undoing. I wore my son's slippers, not mine. And I'm not used to them at all. Also, as I was about to take the first step, I thought I heard someone call me from behind. In my confidence, I turned to look back, but put my foot forward without looking.

And through this experience, I am reminded of two basic mistakes I had made in my life, which led me to be overconfident. One of them, I learnt 17 years ago, but not well enough, and the other, I was forced to learn after my fall.

The first was in 2005, when I was visiting my friend in Bengaluru. He asked me to get him something from the other room. While walking in, I tumbled down and fell face-first. On hearing the thud, my friend rushed in. I took his outreached hand and got up. I coyly uttered, "and you are supposed to be the one who cannot see." Suhas completely lost his vision at the age of seven. But like Marvel’s masked vigilante, Daredevil, if you don’t know that he’s completely blind, you simply cannot tell. I asked him how come he had never stumbled on that step in the room. "I never take anything for granted," he said. He would make himself very aware of his surroundings, not once hesitating for help. And of course, his hearing becomes an important sense to fall back upon.

It was two days after the fall that I read this research paper in Psychological Science that spoke about how sound can alter our visual perception. My friend who had lost his eyesight as a child never took his hearing for granted. But I, with clear vision (when I'm wearing my glasses), had perhaps taken too much for granted.

So, I've learnt my lesson. I’m literally and figuratively moving ahead one step at a time, keeping my eyes, ears and all other senses fully attentive, thankful for the gift of life.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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