Live to move, move to live

In this first article of a series on the mind and body struggle against everyday stress, my wife Lillie shares her findings on the importance of movement for good health. For the second article, click here.

At 4am on August 19, 2019, my life was turned upside down. I was jolted out of sleep by sciatic nerve pain so horrible that I wanted to throw myself out of my bedroom window to end it. My entire left leg went into spasm for minutes, until it finally it just stopped moving. The pain, coming from my lower back, subsided a bit, but I felt like I had lost control of my leg. What the heck just happened?

No one could tell me what was wrong at first. But gradually, over the course of a few days, my muscles became more and more responsive, thanks in part to the bike. A few weeks later, I still couldn’t walk without limping or sit in a chair without feeling a lot of sciatic pain.  But I could ride my bike. So, of course I rode my bike. I even rode from Turin to Nice with my husband Alain for the 2019 edition of the Torino-Nice Rally, our big goal that I had been training for for months. I wasn’t fast and I was in pain the whole time, but I did it anyway. And the more I rode, the better I felt. By day seven, I thought I was on the road to total recovery, still not understanding exactly what had gone wrong.

Torino-Nice Rally: the fifth day at Altopiano della Gardetta (aka “Little Peru”) and I feel great!

Then everything fell apart. I went back to work, and within days the pain came back with a vengeance. Convinced I had done too much exercise, my doctors told me to stop. Once I stopped, the pain got worse. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes. For 5 months, I spent most of the day pinned to my couch looking out of my window towards the mountains, wondering if I would ever be able to climb them again.

It wasn’t until February 2020 that my condition was finally diagnosed. It made perfect sense but was hard to accept: I have an autoimmune neuromuscular disease. My body reacts to stress by contracting my muscles; when shortened, they pull on all the joints, causing paralyzing pain. In other words, I had a “burn-out”. My illness was psychosomatic.

It has been almost a year since the diagnosis. It has been almost a year since the therapy, both physical and psychological, has been daily. I didn’t know how much physical and mental health were connected. Now, for every emotional difficulty, it’s my body that reacts. It sucks, but it reminds me to focus on the good and not the bad in my life.

So how do I fix this? It’s simple, but hard to achieve nonetheless – be in the present. One method is to calm the mind through movement, through experience, through reconnecting with nature. At the end of this article, you can watch two short videos I found on the internet that perfectly summarize what I learned the hard way.

80% of adults will suffer from back pain in their lifetime, and it is the leading cause of disability in our society. However, the highest prevalence of back pain is between the ages of 35 and 55. If back pain was only associated with physical deterioration of the spine, then why is it most common at a relatively young age? Many experts say it is a stress-induced disease. We live in a society that is not necessarily compatible with our well-being.

I deprived myself of moments when my body and mind needed to relax. I deprived myself of free time to do what my conscious brain deemed “necessary” to do, for my work, for my family, for society. I forgot to be a simple living creature: an animal that was created in nature.

Thanks to my e-bike, I could still take my son on mini-adventures to motivate me to keep moving

We are designed to move: a creature composed of hundreds of muscles, tendons, joints and bones that work in beautiful harmony. We are not meant to sit at a desk for hours on end, lost in our thoughts. The more the negative thoughts took over my brain, the more I disconnected from my body. And when I no longer gave myself little getaways to slow down, to calm my spinning brain, my body fell apart.

Now that I have accepted that my mind is responsible for my pain, I trust my body as a machine designed to move. I no longer fear movement, even though this movement can still be painful. I recognise that most of my pain is caused by my emotional state and has nothing to do with my physical state. Now that I am focusing on the body rather than the mind, the pain is slowly disappearing. I am far from being pain free, but I have finally reconnected with my body and regained some control of my muscles.

On the Tremola (The old Gotthard Pass road) with my e-bike to celebrate my 41st birthday

But now I have a new battle… the battle to stay in motion. Every day that I move, the more I move, the better I feel. Every day that I don’t move, I feel the pain coming back. My biggest fear is going back to being disabled. So I need a goal to keep moving, to get out of the pain cycle and become a functioning human being again.

So of course I started looking at cycling challenges. The Etape du Tour? No, twice is enough. To be honest, none of the big cyclosportives attract me, as they are too familiar. I live in the mountains. I have to climb 800m just to get home. In all honesty, I just want an excuse to ride my bike all day, for days on end, in search of adventure, beauty, and peace. The best times I’ve had in the last few years have been riding my bike with my son who is now 5. Simple but meaningful moments along the Swiss cycling network. The only goal was to ride my bike, see beautiful places, eat and find a campsite for the night. Nothing else mattered. It was beautiful.

So what will I try to do? Find out in the next instalment of this series, which could be titled ” Cycling Heidi goes wild…? “

PS: here are the videos I mentioned above