Fitness Watch Drastic Setback—or Fitness Opportunity?

By Bruce Adams

I recently squandered a perfectly good opportunity to advance my campaign for better overall fitness. On a frosty winter morning as I walked from my car to my workplace entrance, I slipped on a glassy patch of ice obscured by a micro-dusting of freshly fallen snow. With the improbable lightning-fast speed usually associated with martial arts movies, my left ankle folded under, shattering my tibia and fibula at the ankle and instantly rendering my foot a dangling piece of useless bony meat. After a relaxing twelve-hour emergency room stay, my ankle was reassembled with nine pieces of stainless steel hardware.

You might think that a multiple fracture and subsequent surgery is not the sort of thing that has the word “opportunity” stamped all over it. But contrary to any impression I might have previously made with my gloomy outlook on maintaining a healthy lifestyle in a hazardous world, I am actually an optimist by nature.

Within a day of the accident I had identified a number of silver linings to this particular dark cloud. For one, though the knee-to-toe cast I would be sporting for the next eight weeks was an itching, burning, chafing nightmare, it elevated the energy level required to carry out essential tasks like standing or going to the refrigerator for beer, thus providing a source of potential self-improvement. Crutches, I reasoned, presented a physical challenge that would improve both cardiovascular fitness and upper body strength, particularly the shoulders and triceps. The same could be said of the wheelchair used for longer treks.

Thus adversity became opportunity as I eagerly threw myself into my new handicap-driven fitness regimen. Each time I muscled my way from home to car or tooled down the hallway at work, I did so with verve and panache. I attacked the handicap ramp, kicked Rockette-style with each crutch-assisted step, and refused all offers of assistance from well-meaning but misguided enablers.

All along I visualized the amazing, almost magical, transformation that was occurring little by little under my shirt as rippling muscles strained under the physical demands of single-legged ambulation. Most people require discipline to exercise daily; all I needed was a trip to the bathroom and I was feeling the burn. Jack LaLanne would be proud. Like Rocky, I felt myself undergoing a change from non-contender to ideal physical specimen.

After a few weeks I graduated to a walking cast, allowing me to amble unaided, looking rather like Chester of Gunsmoke fame. It was then that I chanced to glance into a mirror, but instead of Rocky Balboa, the reflection staring back was closer to late-period Jake LaMotta. The sight of my less-than-Olympic-caliber physique appreciably reduced my capacity for further self-delusion.

Evidently my daily crutch hikes had been inadequate compensation for the vast stretches of time I spent viewing Turner Classic Movies. Moreover, I had anticipated weight loss simply because leaving my second floor bedroom entailed life-threatening stairway crutch acrobatics. How much bother would one willingly undergo for calorie-dense, nutritionally-challenged snack food?

Here’s where I learned a little something about willpower. Motivated by hunger and boredom, I discovered that just days after a serious operation, while on pain killers and wearing a cast, one is capable of walking on crutches down icy porch steps, driving blocks to a grocery store, trudging through parking lot slush, and carrying a shopping basket in one’s mouth for a couple slices of supermarket pizza and a jumbo cookie. Eating became one of my few methods of distraction from physical irritation and psychological discomfort.

When I returned to work—still on crutches—I calculated the extra time needed on the morning drive to gimp into the store for donuts (just rewards for courage in the face of adversity). And before long I was a frequent rider on the supermarket handicap power cart, its basket filled with additional compensation for pain and suffering.

In eight weeks, I’m pretty sure I reached or exceeded the upper threshold of my lifetime weight range, a fact I have not yet confirmed since it’s impossible to get an accurate reading from a digital scale while balancing on one foot. Yesterday the cast came off. Soon I will begin as much as six months of therapy to learn to walk properly again. It’s depressing…but nothing a nice stromboli and classic movie won’t fix.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Buffalo.