What Works for Me


Personal Exercise Plans, continued

My Plan
Eleanora, La Mesa, California, posted Spring 2002

I have taken an alternative path for managing the effects of polio that primarily affects only one leg. Over the last 55 years, I have learned that every professional in this muscle business recommends something different, so some of my success may be sheer luck.

I exercise seven days a week. Since 1964, I have done aerobics and stretching exercises geared toward women; I supplement with two sets of 10 reps of stretching of the muscles in the affected leg. I swim twice a week in an Olympic-size pool and, since 1987, I do 24 laps of the breast stroke and crawl, with a two-minute rest between each set of 8. I also lift free weights (about 8 pounds) and use weight machines twice a week (starting in 1997).

From these activities, I have created a stronger leg that allows me to continue functioning as a field-based outdoors scientist. And, I continue to follow the recommendation of resting periodically in the field and in the pool.

I am providing a time line and a narrative of my experience; some aspect of my experience may be useful to others.

Some of my luck came from very stubborn parents who found a muscle physiologist, Rene Cailliet, MD, who was testing Sister Kenny's techniques at the Kabat Kaiser Institute, Washington, DC, when I emerged from the hospital following polio. Together, they designed hot whirlpool soaks and exercise, which was then followed by six or so years of tap, ballet, and gymnastics lessons. Until I became a teenager, I wore a brace on my skinny polio leg. For a dropped, wobbling foot, I had a tendon transplant and a zig-zag cut into my left Achilles tendon in 1957. Then, I led a normal, active life (including climbing mountains) doing daily aerobic and stretching exercises until post-polio kicked in around 1985.

Through all the years, it was obvious that the left calf muscle was non-functioning. When I joined a local support organization in 1989, I followed the recommendation to save muscle function by reducing extraneous physical activity. I did not stop daily exercises because of cardiovascular issues, but I did worry.

I got a handicapped placard and used a cane for long distance travel. I also continued to be an active field geologist, using meter-long soil augers as stabilizing crutches.

I began wearing magnet footpads in my shoes and field boots in 1995. I tested them in the field because there is no scientifically accepted theory as to why magnetism should work. I found that without them, it took four days to recover physically from one full day of field work. With them, recovery took a couple of hours of sitting down. (Dr. Cailliet thinks the benefit of the magnets may be a result of the weight of the pads rather than the magnetism.)

In 1997, my parents renewed contact with Cailliet. In the intervening years, he was Chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Southern California and now is a semi-retired clinical professor at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He advised that he did not agree with recommendations to cut out exercising and walking so as to save what little function is still present. He told me to ". start exercising and see if you can pull in a nerve from someplace else."

So, I joined a nearby gym where the trainer put me on a variety of Cybex machines. The soleus (the muscle that extends the foot) muscle started to enlarge, but I was still very unstable on rough surfaces.

In 1999, I needed physical therapy following rotator-cuff surgery (probably from lifting weights incorrectly or exacerbating a weakened shoulder tendon). The therapist provided the important sentence: strengthen the surrounding muscles because it (missing muscle) is never going to get stronger.

In 2001, we moved and I found a new gym that had personal trainers and I hired one for six weeks. His analysis of my gait found I was not putting weight on my polio leg, thereby creating the instability. He changed my gait, having me wiggle my hips to shift the weight from side to side ("wiggle like a girl"), added a new exercise for the soleus, started me on calf exercises, and introduced stretching of various muscles. The soleus got stronger and the instability decreased. I decided to add quadriceps exercises to avoid later problems with rising from the seated position associated with aging.

This year I hired for two weeks a trainer who has a BS in muscle physiology. She added an exercise for the tibialis anterior (flexes the foot) and "core strengthening," a teaching of abdominal physiologist Paul Chek, that involves sucking in at the bellybutton and pulling up at the abdomen while doing stretches. Almost all of the instability is gone; when I get wobbly, a function of forgetting to wiggle, I actually feel muscles tightening in both legs to stabilize me. There is still no motion in the calf muscle; that one must be gone for good.

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