Listening to your body, not platitudes from a stranger, the best option

It was a nearly perfect summer morning when two hikers — one injured, the other brimming with bravado — shared a moronic moment about 100 feet below the summit of Mount St. Helens.

The swaggering hiker was making noise about how “it’s just a matter of toughness” and “you can’t turn back now; this may be the only chance you ever get to stand on top of a mountain.”

The other hiker was me. I’d been to the top five times previously, but my left knee felt as if it had come unhinged and I was calculating whether or not I could limp back to my car. I’d decided to turn back just about the time the stranger wandered by with her unsolicited pep talk.

Then, in a moment I’m not particularly proud of, I changed my mind. I listened to the stranger instead of my body. And, nearly six months later, I’m still paying the price, both in medical bills and limited activity.

Dr. Derek Ochiai, an orthopedic surgeon, calls this type of mistake “the community effect.” And he says it’s common enough to provide a steady stream of patients to his practice in Virginia.

He uses CrossFit, a wildly popular group training program, as an example.

“It’s very encouraging, but that definitely creates an external type of pressure on people,” Ochiai said during a phone interview. “It makes them want to push themselves more than they normally would. Do just a couple more, and that’s when you tear your rotator cuff.”

While Ochiai says CrossFit’s intense workouts coupled with its encouraging, competitive atmosphere make it ripe with opportunity for injury, he says it can still be a good workout program. If CrossFit motivates you to exercise regularly, then, by all means, do CrossFit.

“Find something you love doing,” Ochiai said. “If you don’t, you’re going to find excuses not to do it.”

Just listen to your body, not the noise.

Of course, Ochiai sees patients who injured themselves pushing themselves too hard. Torn labrums from yoga. Knee injuries from running, biking and, presumably, climbing mountains.

“I tell my patients, in general, whenever you feel a slight burn ... that is where you should stop and do something else,” said Ochiai, a two-time karate national champion who often consults for pro athletes. “When you are wincing in pain, you are probably doing too much.”

In the gym, it’s easy for instructors to offer hyperbolic inspirational genericisms — “One more minute! You can do anything for one minute!” — but the good ones also remind people that keeping up isn’t nearly as important as doing what’s right for each individual.

An instructor in a class I sometimes attend has a line she often uses: “Remember, I’m just a guideline.” That is her way of reminding the class to listen to their bodies before her, even if she’s encouraging the group to go a little harder.

Slowing down when your body tells you to isn’t always easy when the people around you are still going hard. And the well-intentioned “you got this” platitudes don’t make it any easier.

It’s human nature to want to keep up, finish. And for many it’s human nature to want to encourage. Slowing down and giving appropriate feedback take practice.

The problem, Ochiai says, is many people don’t know their limits. Or they don’t realize their limits have shifted since the last time they tried to engage in a serious exercise program.

So, especially at the beginning of the year, people head to the gym with good intentions but not always a good plan for reaching their goals. They go too hard. They try to keep up with strangers because that’s what everybody else is doing.

“We live in a society that wants instant results,” Ochiai said. “You want to look good in a bathing suit in a month, so you go from very little activity to working out hard so you can get there quickly.

“That shouldn’t be the way you look at it. It’s not about how quickly you can get there. It’s about being able to keep going and you will get there. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. ... Don’t go zero-to-60; find something you can do for a lifetime.”

And listen to your body instead of the noise.

This has been rattling around in my head as 2014 draws to a close and I look over a list of unaccomplished goals. Right now, I’m limited in how hard I can ride my bike, my fitness level has dropped and I’m spending time rehabbing my knee when I could be doing other things.

And it’s because I made the poor choice of listening to a stranger instead of my body.

I’d kick myself if my knee was up for it.

There’s still enough time before the New Year to add another resolution: Don’t be like me and that other doofus on Mount St. Helens.

Don’t mindlessly fling bumper-sticker motivation at people who might be better served with encouragement to make a smart decision. And be wise enough and humble enough to realize when to ignore a well-meaning but misguided pep talk.

It might be the most important resolution you make this year.