Exercise for Hope!
Spirituality Column #14
June 15, 1996
Living hopefully with HIV/AIDS means taking action. One concrete way of taking action, and thereby creating hope, is to exercise. One of the first things I did after being diagnosed with cancer and AIDS was to get to the gym for a good work-out. I had been into weight-lifting and building up my body for about 6 years before I was diagnosed, so my body was strong and in good shape for the battle that lay ahead. But now that I was diagnosed, it became one of the most important facets of my program for survival.
I knew that it was important for me to continue exercising as long as it was medically feasible if I wanted any chance of surviving. The doctors said there was nothing they could do for me (there were no treatments in 1984). However, I knew instinctively there was a lot I could do for myself. And exercise was one of those activities I knew would give me life, would help my body stay strong for the fight, and best of all, would give me hope.
If we are co-creators with God of our own healing, as I believe, then we have to participate actively in the healing process. We can't just sit back and wait for God to zap us with a miracle. We have to create the conditions for God's healing activity. Many different kinds of exercise can help us to feel that we are working hand in hand with God in healing, in keeping HIV as inactive as possible, and our bodies as fully alive and whole as possible.
Weight-lifting became a bargaining tool for me. As I tried for one more repetition, I thought, "If I can just press out another rep, I know I can beat this disease!" The effort of pushing myself harder on the stationary bicycle became another bargaining chip: "If I can just keep pedaling, AIDS won't get me!" Maybe there was a level of denial at work in me then, but it was great motivation for strengthening my body and working on my endurance.
The bodybuilding concept of "no pain, no gain" helped prepare me for difficult medical treatments like chemotherapy. In building muscle, one must exhaust the muscle, breaking down the tissue through repeated and increasing challenges to its strength, so that it will build back up stronger and bigger. The painful fatigue of a hard set of sit-ups, biceps curls, or bench presses I learned to accept and strive for, because I knew that was how I would get my muscles to grow and strengthen.
When I was frightened by the toxic side effects of the drug being pushed into my system, my doctor would remind me that those painful side effects meant that the drug was working and doing what it was supposed to do. It became a way of understanding the pain, and that helped me bear it. "No pain, no gain" can apply to healing, too.
The breathing techniques I learned from working out also helped me to bear with the challenges of many medical procedures and tests. In order to push increasing amounts of weight at the gym, one must learn to take a full, deep breath in preparation for a steady, deliberate breathing out with each repetition. The expelling of breath helps push the weight. Learning to focus on proper breathing enabled me to apply relaxing breathing techniques during bone marrow biopsies, injections, spinal taps, and even chemotherapy treatments.
Of course, there were periods during the years I was sick when I had to stop exercising so vigorously. When I had hepatitis, for example, my doctor insisted I stop going to the gym while I recovered. But I still stretched my arms and legs, and at least walked around the house just to keep moving, almost as if to remind myself that I wasn't quite dead yet!
When I was suffering the worst of the side effects of suramin, the experimental drug I took in 1985, I also stopped working out. The neuromuscular complications prevented me from doing anything like the bodybuilding exercises I was accustomed to. The left side of my body became practically useless, as the muscles painfully wasted away. I couldn't even hold a glass with my left hand. There were times I bitterly grieved the loss of my beautiful body when I saw my skeletal body in the mirror.
So when they ended the suramin trials, and I started to recover from the side effects, I was determined to get back to the gym. I told my neurologist that I wanted to start exercising again and begin to build up my body once more. The neurologist said, "Absolutely not! You must never, ever lift weights again. If you do, you'll break the muscles down worse than they are, and they will never recover."
Something in me (could it be God?) told me I didn't have to believe him, and the next day I returned to the gym. I found the tiniest dumb bell in the gym, and placed it in my left hand. Using my right arm to help, I forced my left arm to do a set of biceps curls. After about a month, my left arm began to work on its own. Today, I can curl 45 pound dumb bells with each arm, and I proudly display 16" arms!
Building up my body has become a symbol of how much healing I have experienced, how healthy I really am. When I last preached at the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles, the church ran an ad in the local lesbian/gay papers with a photo of me in a double biceps pose with the caption, "I Believe In Hope! Live Fully Alive with HIV/AIDS!" We had an enormous number of new men in church that Sunday!
You don't have to be a bodybuilder to live a healthy life with HIV. However, some form of exercise is an important ingredient to anyone's health, HIV-positive or not. Weight lifting is good for putting on, and keeping on, quality weight. But there are many kinds of exercise, and the important thing is to find the kind of exercise that will keep you interested enough to do it several times a week.
It really pays off, emotionally and physically, to get your heart pumping faster and to work up a good sweat, to stretch out the muscles and get the blood flowing through your whole body. More and more HIV/AIDS social service agencies are providing aerobics classes for persons living with HIV/AIDS, because the value of exercise has been proven again and again.
Of course, it is very important to consult with your physician before starting any exercise program, and there are some illnesses and conditions which prevent strenuous exercise. But if your doctor gives the OK, exercise is a great habit to get into. No matter what mood you're in, challenging your body through exercise can help elevate not only your heart rate, but your spirit!
I want to keep moving and pumping iron as long as I can. I always feel better during and after working out. It reminds me how grateful I am for my health. It helps me stay focused. It grounds me and helps me feel that I am actively doing something to care for this body which God gave me. When I'm pumping iron or bicycling, I always feel as if I'm actively participating in God's healing of my body and my soul. And that gives me hope. Exercise can give you hope, too!