The 2.5 Year Update

While it’s been a bit since I’ve checked in and updated about bionic life, please file this under the “no news is good news” category.

In the past two years since getting my ExoSyms, my physical abilities have been fabulous. I can still do so much more than I’ve been able to do in years. Here’s a look at just a few things:

  • Walked all over Disneyland, all day long, enduring standing in lines a million times better than I have ever been able to in the past.
  • Walked an average of 7-10 miles each day of a five-day vacation to London to visit a fellow bionic ExoSym friend.
  • Camped several times and can keep up with the Girl Scout Troop I lead.
  • Became an archery instructor and teach archery to Girl Scouts and other youth groups.
  • Walked all over my beloved red rock country of Utah, again, this time going off trail in Arches for the first time!
  • Gone on multiple snowy mountain visits to play in the snow with the kids, and can keep up with the best of them.
  • Continued to attend the annual Heli-Expo, the helicopter industry convention, walking 15,000+ steps a day for four days (tons more than I’ve ever been able to do) and my feet don’t hurt a bit! My back, yes – that’s cement flooring. But my feet are great!
  • Took on Emerald City Comic Con (bigger than Heli-Expo).
  • Walked all over the Oregon Coast in the sand on vacation.
  • Walked with my Girl Scout troop in the Fourth of July Parade. Twice.
  • Gone our countless hikes.
  • Logged 10-15,000+ steps a day for a two week vacation in San Diego – zoo, safari park, museums, beaches, and old town.

That’s a lot of stuff, but one thing has become abundantly clear through it all: You. Must. Keep. Up. Your. Exercises. As warned by Ryan, and somewhat forgotten about by many:

Remembering to Exercise

I’d been bad. There were weeks or months when I’d be at my desk working all day, not getting any exercise. For me, it wasn’t enough to just go on vacation or walk from time to time. Your core, like everything else, gets weak if you don’t work it. Oh, and your sorry middle age body gains weight, and not the good “it’s all muscle” kind.

Noticing I wasn’t as good as I’d once become in my ExoSym during the early days, things like rough ground or steep inclines got hard, I resolved to get this sorry butt back into shape. And lose the extra “baggage,” so to speak.

I started by creating a list of exercises–a mixture of those I got from the Hanger Clinic when I first got my ExoSym and some special exercises from my physical therapist designed to strengthen my very weak right hip flexor and abductor due to my birth defect and subsequent surgeries. Knowing I can’t stand to do repetitious gym-like work for more than 20 minutes a day, I broke them into fine doable workouts, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5. Days 1-4 work different muscle groups, and Day 5 is a lot of stretches and yoga moves.

No longer paying for gym membership, I took inventory. I had the exercise ball. I didn’t have a kettle bell or any resistance bands. A quick trip to the store and two-day wait for Mr. Amazon Delivery Dude and I was set.

Pole for pull ups, ball, resistance band (with handy door stopper so I can use the office door as an anchor), yoga mat, and kettle ball. That’s it.

Each morning I do one of the three exercise sets. They take about 20 or so minutes depending on how distracted I get from my four-legged moral support network that sees me being on the floor as a sign I want to be their personal masseuse.

Then I go for a 1.5 mile walk. I live in a hilly neighborhood, so these aren’t strolls in the park. I try to keep the beat of the dance music in my headphones and am usually rewarded with some good calorie burn. My walks typically take about 25-30 minutes. Once home, it’s a protein-filled breakfast to start my day.

Granted, I need to get up an hour earlier to make this routine happen before I have to get to the rest of my day, but I’m feeling more energetic throughout the day since I started this. I’m tracking my progress on the MyFitnessPal app, which also suggests caloric intake for intended flabby stomach and butt flesh loss (my term, not theirs) as well as portions of carbs, protein, and fat to hit my goal. I’m also drinking a ton of water and have cut out caffeine and, for the most part, alcohol. Believe it or not, the caffeine was not hard (as I’m getting energy boost from the exercise and better nutrition). Keeping the drinks to a glass of wine every few days is not so bad. My body doesn’t seem to like me drinking more than that now anyway, which is a good thing, right?

I walk every day, only taking one to two days off a week from the morning exercises.

In my first week, I lost about 2 pounds and am finding it easier to get up those hills only 8 days into the routine!

ExoSym Integrity

One thing we all ask is “how long will this last before I need to get another one?” Since I’m not running, jumping, doing cross fit, lifting incredible amounts of weight or otherwise putting lots of strain on them, my devices are as good as new at 2.5 years of age. Other than a couple of tweeks to the foam padding in the first year, they’ve needed nothing more than my ever-lasting devotion. I still wear them from the time I get up until I get into my comfies to catch up on Game of Thrones at night. My feet never hurt. They’re worth every last penny (which I understand I’ll be shelling out when they do wear out as insurance companies have gotten wise to the ExoSym cost and have started refusing to pay.)

They really have changed my life, and the only thing standing between me and perfect fitness is, well, me.


Life Changing Hike

It’s now been a month since I received my ExoSyms and I can say with utmost certainty that these babies have made a huge difference, and will continue to do so.

This past month I’ve walked thousands of more steps than I used to and done things I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do again.

At the top of Tunnel Mountain.

Last week I celebrated my 10th anniversary with my husband. We honeymooned in Banff, Alberta, Canada in the Canadian Rockies and have made it a special tradition to go back every five years. On our honeymoon, we did some hiking and I don’t remember it being too terribly rough other than my feet hurt a lot at the end of each day and I limited my hikes to a mile or so each way. My new husband did go on more strenuous hikes alone.

On our fifth anniversary, it was harder. By then I’d had my two kids and my feet hurt a lot more. My husband had to push me to make the hike to the top of Tunnel Mountain in Banff. I remember we only did a few hikes, and they weren’t that long. I spent a lot of time in hot springs and by the pool.

On our 10th anniversary, I blew those two trips away.

Despite only having the ExoSyms three weeks, and knowing full well I was still building muscle, I stood at the bottom of Tunnel Mountain on the first day ready to put these babies to the test. And test it was.

The hike is a little under three miles round trip from where we started, and has an elevation gain of 950 feet. And while some serious hiking guides, sites and apps call it ‘easy,’ I’m here to tell you if an out of shape, sea level dweller in new ExoSyms learning to climb inclines feels this is an “easy” hike, then “hard” would be comparable to burning in hell after being stung by a hive of angry wasps.

For me, inclines are difficult. My glutes, hip flexors, hip abductors, abs and quads (an just about everything else in between) are so very weak from walking different my whole life. Trying to keep my knee bent just enough to dig in with my toes and not snap back and hyper extend for 1.5 miles straight up was rough. I wanted to really bend my knees, which is also wrong. I was sure I’d be suffering knee pain the next day from all the times my knees snapped back.

Add to that when it got really steep my foot would slide out of my shoe randomly, and we had ourselves what we call a challenge.

Luckily I had my trusty walking stick and husband. With breaks to catch my breath, occasional leaning on his arm, the stick for more support, and taking it slow to try to focus on doing it right to save my knees, I made it to the top. It wasn’t pretty, but it was success. And I’m here to tell you every single hike after that was a lot easier.

And for you fashion watchers, notice having small calves means you can wear your ExoSyms under loose fit bootleg cut jeans! Yay for middle age modesty!

I walked all over Banff and on several trails around Banff National Park that week, burning up my activity app. According to it, I walked a total of 31 miles in six days. I’d say that’s a bump up from two miles a day.

I must admit though, the ability to wake up and stumble like a Walking Dead extra to the hot tub every morning was a big help. A good 20-minute stretch in the hot tub, 20 minutes swimming in the pool, another 10 in the hot tub then a hot shower worked out the kinks and any residual stiffness worked out in the first half mile of the hike the next day. I wonder if my insurance would accept a prescription for a hot tub…

What I noticed during all of this was:

  • My muscles hurt, but they hurt in different places each day, illustrating that I was building muscle, not seriously hurting myself.
  • I stood longer, not feeling the need to sit down as much.
  • My feet did start to hurt, but not like they used to and it took much longer before they hurt.
  • I really need true hiking boots as the lift in my left shoe puts my heel too close to the top, making it easier for my shoe to slip off on inclines.
  • Changing up the types of hikes each day helped build endurance without hurting any one muscle group.
  • I felt a lot stronger on the last day. I actually got stronger! On vacation. Without a gym!
  • Despite several hyperextensions, I didn’t hurt my knees.

It was a massive personal achievement for me to be able to enjoy the Canadian Rockies. I wish we’d had more days to hit more trails. I’ll just have to start hitting the Cascades here in Washington as summer begins to wind down.

The icing on the cake was coming into the Hanger Clinic the next Monday for my sixth visit. After working on a few things with me, Jared commented he noticed a big change. I had gotten stronger and it showed. I’m on the right track.

If only I could get excited about this working out in a gym thing. So not my thing.

Chairs placed in random and sometimes remote areas around the Canadian National Parks this year to celebrate 125 years. We found these at a secluded overlook of Howse Pass, miles from the road. Perfect spot to have a quiet moment on our actual anniversary day.  

Learning the Ropes

Back at the Hanger Clinic for my third visit since getting the ExoSym, I was ushered into the routine of the place. Once you have been casted, tested the test device and received your ExoSym, the next step is to get you going on a training routine unique to your own needs to get the most out of the device. As Jared of Jared’s House of Pain fame put it, “These devices are perfect for you, when we get your body in the right shape for them.”

During my last visit, Jared worked with me on a number of core exercises, demonstrating them then putting me to work. His secret number is six. You do however many reps of each exercise (varies based on the exercise) six times. I have eight exercises I must do with progressively harder work for each. My routine is two days a week, with four of the exercises each day. Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, I was inches away from buying an “Everything Hurts and I’m Dying” t-shirt after day one. It’s not easy, especially if you’re not one of those people who lives for going to the gym. I abhor boring routine workouts. I don’t find them fun, invigorating or in any other way enjoyable. It takes some deep discipline to ignore those “we can skip today” and “I don’t need any more of this crap” internal conversations, I tell you what.

After receiving your exercise demonstration, every visit after that is basically a visit to the gym where your personal trainer checks in on you, as does the magician who created the devices that allow you to be bigger, stronger, better for considerably less than $6 million. You sign in and go to work independently at the gym, working through your assigned exercises.

The Hanger physical therapy process is set up as a group atmosphere. There are several people doing their exercises and getting training from the same person all at the same time. It’s both a way for the good folks at Hanger to help as many people at once and also for us to mix and mingle, spot and support, and basically get to know our fellow ExoSym-ers. We’re scattered around the globe. This is the one place where we’ll always find each other. Kind of our own special Pokémon Stop of awesomeness.

Stretching that flexor.

As I started through the House of Pain Day Two routine, Jared checked in on me and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a new ExoSymer, Lucy, who was out from England for 10 days or so to get her device. Another four device owners were mingling about doing their workouts with Jared. Once I’d warmed up properly, Jared decided to add some spice and get me working on balancing exercises. With both feet being so bad and my center of gravity so off, balance is not my friend. However, in trying a few things we discovered the pelvic tilt I’ve had in my right hip so long has caused a tightened hip flexor. Jared added daily stretching exercises for that muscle to add to my routine.

Then he set up an obstacle course with a balance beam. The very name “balance beam” gives me the willies. Yet, I pulled it off. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. My 7 year old caught me doing the double beam it on video. After that I did it on one beam and then a few other obstacles, which impressed me.

One thing that was mighty helpful was learning how to step down hard. Unlike how I used to, land on both or the best foot at the time, with the ExoSym, you land in the middle of your foot and keep going to dispense the force. The harder you land, the bigger the next step. Practicing that caused a few jarring experiences, but I got the hang of it.

Day 2, or maybe 5: Adjustments and Physical Therapy

Today was my first visit back to the Hanger Clinic since getting my ExoSyms last Wednesday. I was so looking forward to this visit as I discovered the morning after receiving my ExoSyms that there was a very real reason for feeling so uncomfortable the day before – the left one needed some adjustments. It was rubbing in a couple of places and causing pain.

When I put them on Thursday morning my foot really barked. I had a couple of tender spots where the device was too tight or rubbing. I wore them for a couple of hours, but took them off for some relief from the tender spots. Thing is, the other pain was gone with them on, so it was a trade off as it came back when they were off. I didn’t wear them Friday and the pain was less when I put them on Saturday.

I spent all day Saturday moving into the new addition and unpacking the kitchen. By mid-afternoon the tenderness was back and I had to take them off. My feet screamed at having the pressure of my weight back, but I pushed through. When I couldn’t take the foot pain anymore I put the ExoSyms back on and got a second wind. It was like that all weekend.

So today I was thrilled to see Ryan and couldn’t wait to hand them over for adjustment. I resisted the urge to rip them off and run at Ryan with them in my hands. That would have been a little weird, even for me.

Truth be told, Ryan had been on vacation since my last visit, but texted me no less than six times over the weekend to see how I was doing and offer support. This is so much more than good customer service. This is someone who truly cares about the comfort and increased ability of his patients. In all my years of seeing medical professionals, and there have been many, mind you, I have NEVER had a medical professional check up on me like that. Sure, nurses have called to see that I’m not dead the day after I’ve gone home from surgery, but the doctor himself (or in this case, the very person who designed, fitted and sent me home with the device) – never.

Needless to say, Ryan met me right as I arrived and offered to get to work on the adjustments. As Ryan worked on the ExoSyms, Jared met me with his list of exercises he feels will help me develop my core in 12 weeks. Or as I’m want to call it, Jared’s Special Recipe to Make You Call out for Mommy. While my two kids spent quality time with Saint Steve Jobs (the iPads), Jared put me through the paces for about two and a half hours with exercises that pushed me pretty hard.

Adjustments, adjustments, adjustments

Almost everyone needs several adjustments to their devices until they’re perfect. Ryan came back a couple of times and I tried on the devices until we got all the spots addressed. He took a bit off the toe end, widened the foot plate, cut away the spot that was rubbing on my ankle bone and tightened the knee cuffs (that last one he said is very common to do in the first weeks of an ExoSym). He also helped correct my difference in leg length with a little extra padding in the right shoe.

OK, so it doesn’t show as much in the before and after photos above, but in the end, it was so very worth it. The left one felt so much more comfortable, and fit better in my shoe. I did some walking, took a stroll around the outside of the building, and even took on the stairs.

When I left, I didn’t want to lay down and sleep like I did on the first day. I wanted to WALK! I took the kids to a park and we played in the playground. Then we drove home and I stopped off at my husband’s office to visit. When I got home, I stood in my new kitchen and made a nice dinner and even cut up the ingredients and did some pre-prep for tomorrow’s breakfast. THIS is what it was supposed to feel like. I’m feeling a million times better about my ExoSyms now.

Oh, and remember that drawing of Jared’s I forgot to take a picture of last time, the one about how our body mechanics are like a clothes rack. Guess what he had on his board today? Here it is for your viewing pleasure.

The blue on the left is the clothes rack. The two bodies to the right are showing the wrong way to stand and the right one with the red being the force distribution from steps, jumps, etc. It starts from the foot and is supposed to zig zag evenly up the body. In this one he’s showing distribution with and without the ExoSym. In my case, the red lines go WAY out to the front and are small in the back, thus the need for my core workouts to push that force back.

ExoSym Preparation Exercises

As a “local” – able to drive in to my appointments rather than flying in for 7-10 intensive days – I am on a more spread out schedule. I have to wait 17 long days between my casting appointment and the day I get my ExoSyms.

As I wait out those long days, I’m doing what I can to prepare. Ryan sent me a PDF outlining a number of pre-ExoSym exercise I can do to strengthen up for the devices – building up the weak muscles I’ll need, especially my core.

While the PDF didn’t outline the need for them, I purchased a 55cm stability ball and a 9 in pilates ball because I know several exercise using each that can’t hurt. Plus, it’s great motivation – having to work out in preparation for ExoSyms – to try taking a chunk out of the old muffin top, eh?

Now, when I got the PDF and excitedly had a look through the few exercises with visions of studly core muscles dancing in my head, I quickly needed to put a few things in perspective. The 30 repetitions, three times, five times a week of “injury side up T-crunches” is a goal to aim for, not an immediate expectation, for instance. If, let’s say, you’re crying for your mommy after 10 reps one time on day one, this is not a failure.

So I do my recommended exercises, plus a few more hip exercises I know my weak right side needs from past physical therapists. I try to do them every day. Lower ab work a day or two during a certain part of the month sucks raw donkey balls and therefore are avoided. But otherwise, I’m keeping up as best as I can. I won’t admit how many of the “recommended” reps I can actually do for some of these exercises, but the important thing is I’m doing them as much as I can. As long as I am sore the next day, I know I’m doing some good. That blasted pain-gain correlation and all.

It hurts to laugh some days and I need a hot shower in the morning to get going, so I know it’s working.

Exercises I do:

  • Straight and bent knee leg lifts on the right side (for my week hip muscles)
  • Plank exercise (on back, put calves on stability ball, slowly rise up to a plank, hold, slowly lower)
  • With small palates ball under small of back, leg lifts, scissor kicks and knee bends
  • Single leg push ups (both legs for me, from knee because hurts feet too much to do properly)
  • T-cruches (both legs)
  • Leg lifts – straight and bent knee (lay on stomach, lift legs)
  • Single-leg bridge (both legs – way hard for me on my right side)
  • Single-leg reverse hyperextension (both legs and easiest of all the exercises for me)

One week to go!