Chronic knee pain began slowing me down a couple of years ago: Fifty-eight years of constant wear and tear had taken its toll. I was a dancer most of my life, doing ballet, modern, and jazz as a girl and keeping it up into my 40s. But it was hard on me (and my knees) — as was gardening, my other favorite pastime.
I also have a physically demanding career as a registered nurse, which I’ve done since graduating in 1980. These days I work in an internist’s office, but earlier in my career I worked in critical and intensive-care units and was on my feet nonstop.
Until two years ago, none of these things bothered me. I enjoyed being outside, and liked biking, walking, and swimming. Suddenly, it seemed, a short walk was the only activity I could handle.
I also started having a tough time getting around; walking up stairs was the worst. I have a three-story home with a laundry room on the first floor and my bedroom on the third. My 6-year-old grandson would zoom past me up those stairs, and there I’d be, left in his dust, painstakingly lifting one foot, then the other, clutching the railing as I tackled one dreadful step at a time.
By the fall of 2014, most of the activities I loved — dancing, gardening, playing Legos on the floor with my grandson — were limited by chronic knee pain.
And that pain was affecting my mental state: I didn’t feel like me anymore.
During my childhood, my parents set good examples by leading healthy, vigorous lives. My dad worked out well into his 80s (he’s 93 now). It’s a value I passed on to my two daughters, Jackie and Titania.
But there I was, in my late 50s, already slowing down.
I was so limited by the pain that making the two-hour drive to visit my parents had become difficult. I couldn’t join my family on the beach for a yoga session taught by my niece, who is a talented instructor. I couldn’t chase my grandson around the yard.
I was missing out on life.
So last September I went to see an orthopedic specialist, who said strengthening my leg muscles would go a long way toward alleviating the pain. That seemed like good advice, but I didn’t know where to start.
I had belonged to gyms over the years, but because of my knee pain, I hadn’t worked out consistently with weights or machines in some time.
And when I used weights in the past, I hadn’t consulted a trainer. I know now that I probably wasn’t doing my knees any favors.
Luckily, I am blessed with two amazing daughters who care about my health. My older daughter, Titania, was a member at Life Time Fitness, and in September, she and her husband surprised me with a gym membership. It turned out to be a life-changing gift.
On my first visit, I wasn’t at all sure of what I was doing, so I asked if someone could show me how to properly use the weight machines. That’s how I met trainer Dustin Rabon.
Dustin showed me the equipment as well as exercises that would strengthen my legs and core while protecting my knees. After talking to him a couple of times, I realized he could really help me, and that some one-on-one training would do me good. In October I hired Dustin as my personal trainer and started working out with him two days a week.
Dustin developed a weight program tailored to my needs — and it may sound like just a pun, but by that I mean my knees.
I had to strengthen my legs, particularly my thighs, but I couldn’t do traditional lunges or squats. Dustin taught me three squat variations to do on the floor using stability balls. He also set me up on weight machines that protected my knees while building my leg muscles and core.
I was amazed by the progress I was making. After two months with weights, swimming, and cardio workouts on the elliptical machines, I was strong enough — and pain-free often enough — to try some group fitness classes, such as yoga and even Zumba.
My first yoga class was so emotional for me: It felt amazing to be able to do something I had wanted to try for so long. I had tears in my eyes — tears of joy.
Walking the Walk
Since the spring, I’ve been going to the gym about four days a week, including the two days I work out with Dustin. And when the weather is nice, I go biking or walking, too.
When I started last October, I was only hoping for some pain relief, but in just six months I felt great. As a bonus, I lost 15 pounds. My clothes fit better. I am more flexible. My stamina is improved. I hadn’t been sickly, but I feel healthier all around, and more in tune with my body. I feel like me again.
My daughter gave me my gym membership because she loves me and wants to have me around for a long time. To my surprise, going to the gym has become a really enjoyable part of my weekly routine. It’s truly a gift that keeps on giving — it’s given me my life back.
Titania and her husband just bought a trampoline, and I recently tried jumping on it for a few minutes. I’m hoping I’ll be able to play on it with my grandson someday soon. Anything is possible. I know, because I went to the gym the other day and I told Dustin to watch me — then I ran up the steps.
Meet: Barbara Gibson, 59, a registered nurse in Atlanta; mother to Titania and Jackie; grandma to Titania’s 6-year-old son.
- Big Achievement: Using strength training to overcome chronic knee pain that had prevented her from taking part in activities she enjoyed, such as gardening and yoga. “I’m proof that you can overcome chronic pain, and I’m grateful for getting my life back.”
- Big Inspirations: Her father, who worked out into his 80s; her grandson, who wants to play with her; and her daughters, one of whom gave her a gym membership as a present.
- What Worked: Working with a trainer who developed a weight program designed to strengthen her legs while protecting her knees; going through a full fitness assessment and learning to use a fitness tracker to monitor her activities.
- What Didn’t Work: Giving in to the downward spiral of chronic knee pain. Decreased activity levels only led to increased pain and diminished capacity.
- Words of Wisdom: “Keep moving and find an activity that motivates you. If chronic pain is getting in the way, consider individualized training so you can learn to work around your limitations. Believe transformation is possible.”