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Fitness Week: Staying in Shape with the Help of Bionics

Judy Berna, exploring NYC wth her kids.

Getting in shape is a unique adventure, when you use technology to get around in the world. After I got my first artificial leg fitted, almost exactly eight years ago, I hit the gym. I’d spent years only exercising sporadically, held back by the deformed foot that I eventually chose to get rid of. It kept me from being ‘athletic’ in almost every sense of the word, and it was an exercise in futility to…well…exercise.

Then suddenly I had this great new metal foot, that had energy return, and range of motion. It made me stand up straight again, and I couldn’t wait to see all that it could do, once I got my core muscles back.

I hit the gym every day, for months. I lifted weights, rode the bike, and practiced the motions of my new foot on the controlled deck of the treadmill (with great handles to hang on to, in case I felt wobbly).  I didn’t learn to run on my new technology, because my first priority was getting back a normal walking gait.

As much as I love the feeling of being fit, the logistics can talk me out of making the effort.  The art of showering with an artificial leg means I have to wait to shower at home. The gym doesn’t have a set up that works for me. I also have the issue of sweat in my leg to figure out. After riding hard on the bike, the liner, that fits between my flesh and my leg socket, fills with sweat. Once I get off the equipment, and try to walk back to the locker room, I squish with every step. It’s like walking with a waterbed in your shoe. It can be a bit intimidating, to sit on the bench next to the showers, and strip down to the bare stump, and dump out the sweat.

My family has just recently moved to a small mountain town in Colorado. I’m excited about the future, because this is the place to live, if you want to be active. Most of the people I pass in the grocery store look like they’ve just come in from some outdoor adventure. Every other car in the parking lot has a bike rack or a kayak strapped to its roof. These people know how to get out there and enjoy life.

But for an amputee, it can be tricky to settle into a new gym. I’m not one of those super athlete amputees, who runs for exercise. I haven’t learned that skill yet. But I love to bike, and I love to lift weights.

I am very aware that the minute I walk into a new gym, people notice. It’s hard to miss my hardware, when I can only comfortably work out in shorts. My shiny metal ‘ankle’ reflects the bright sun that pours through the big windows. My hard plastic ‘calf’, with its nicks and scrapes, doesn’t match my flesh and bone calf very well. I suspect I feel the eyes on my presence, much like the truly overweight person feels the stares, when they walk into a room full of mostly fit people.

But I don’t let the glances bother me. A long time ago I taught myself a coping mechanism that works great for me. The reality is, I will never know the true thoughts of 99.9 of those who ‘look’. I get the chance to choose what I assume they’re thinking. So I choose wisely.

I choose to believe they are looking at me with respect. They see my challenges, that are so easily apparent to the world, and they honor the fact I’m making this effort. I go beyond that, and I impose upon them the feelings of gratitude, that they don’t have to face the same challenges I do. I even hope they might work out a bit harder themselves, thankful that they can.

Feeling good and strong and healthy takes effort. But it’s got a great pay off in the long run. I plan to be around for my kids, many decades from now, because of the time I put in at the gym. Sometimes it takes more effort, and more prep time, to pull it off, with this metal leg. But it will always be worth it. I made this decision so I could have more options in mobility. It’s full of potential. I just need to make the move, and grab it.

Judy Berna

Judy Berna is the amputee wife of an archaeologist, the mother of four children, ages 13-22, and the author of her first book, "Just One Foot: How Amputation Cured My Disability." After living in NH, MO, D.C., UT and NY, she and her family have finally settled in a mountain town in Colorado.

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