I’ve been experimenting with improving my leg strength and gaining back a lost skill. I share the surprising results below.
Since my ALS diagnosis in 2010, I’ve followed a daily practice of range-of-motion exercises based on fundamental movements taught by the strength and movement specialist company Original Strength. I also do modified yoga, Pilates, and gymnastics moves.
Somewhere along my ALS journey, I lost the ability to sit down and get up again without someone’s help. My sitting was more of a free-fall “plopping” onto the chair. Getting up required great effort. I’d take a heave-ho push and then lean onto a nearby side table or have someone grab my hands to pull me onto my feet — not a pleasant experience.
One day, I reached my limit of plopping and pulling and designed a program to improve my leg strength.
In general, exercise for ALS patients is meant to maintain joint mobility and muscle strength. Studies rarely mention improvement.
What’s the worst that could happen? If nothing improves, then I’ll just be right where I started.
My plan of attack
In gyms worldwide, the tried and true leg strengthening exercise is a full squat.
Yikes! A full squat would have me calling 911. I better look up a modification!
The easiest, bottom-rung version of a full squat is an air squat. From a stand, bend the knees a little, then return to a stand. Don’t laugh. I wasn’t laughing. All I could manage was a drop of about 4 inches before my leg muscles began tremoring. However, I managed 10 in a row. I added air squats to my daily routine.
I also knew that to make any real progress, I would have to practice with a real chair.
Down, up, and down again
Positioned with a chair behind me and a rollator in front, I lowered my hips down toward the chair as slowly as I could, resisting all the way.
Once safely seated, I counted “one!”
Frankly, that’s all I could do! It was a “humble-pie moment,” as my grand visions of easily knocking off 10 quickly faded away. Be willing to do just one, I firmly told myself as I set a new goal to do one very slow “sit-down” every day for a week.
I didn’t have to wait a week! Within four days I figured out that one slow “sit-down” in the morning and another in the afternoon would double my progress. By week’s end, I doubled it again. Within another week I sat down and then rocked myself back up by leaning on my rollator handles. The revised goal became two down-and-ups twice a day — adding one more every week.
At the end of one month, I was doing 10! Slowly, yes, but 10 twice a day … 20 a day! I was smiling!
The new goal was 40 a day!
At some point I switched from air squats to legitimate chair squats, actually touching down onto the chair before standing up. I finally hit my goal of 40 a day, divided up as 10 repetitions four times a day. I even felt guilty when backing up to sit down if I didn’t do one or two chair squats just for the heck of it before finally sitting.
Mind you, I began this little experiment around eight months ago. This endeavor takes time, especially when living with ALS. I had good-feeling days, low-energy days, and “I’m just too busy” days. But whenever I felt like giving up, I’d chant my mantra: Be willing to do just one!
I’m still at 40 chair squats per day. I still hold onto my rollator for balance while doing them. It still takes effort to get up from a chair. However, I don’t need anyone to help me and I don’t feel shaky anymore. My posture has improved and when I walk with my rollator, I walk a little taller.
At my last visit to the ALS Clinic, the physical therapist commented that my leg muscles tested stronger.
“Forty chair squats a day!” I blurted out.
Raising an eyebrow, he replied, “Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it.”
I smiled, and thought: And continue to learn how to live well while living with ALS!
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