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Super Healing

You may not know it, but your body has an amazing ability to repair itself after serious illness or injury. A Harvard doc—and former cancer patient—reveals the secrets to tapping into your own powers of recovery.

You can strengthen the muscles around painful joints with isometric exercises that involve tightening and releasing muscles. Or you can try exercises such as leg lifts, which don’t stress the joints. If you aren’t sure how to start exercising, ask your doctor about seeing a physical therapist. Most health insurance plans will cover physical therapy that focuses on helping people recover.

Illness is an unavoidable part of life, but your body wants to heal. And you can help it do that, despite the obstacles. I learned a lot about what it takes to heal from my own recovery journey. I learned to be patient. I learned to measure progress in weeks or months rather than days. And most of all, I learned to have faith in my body’s ability to recover.

I also witnessed this quality in my patient Liz Frem. Having suffered a devastating stroke at 57, Liz came to see me for a consultation. She didn’t believe what her doctors seemed to believe: that her weakness, balance problems, and headaches were with her for good. Though it had been more than a year since her stroke—usually considered the time limit for neurologic recovery—Liz was determined to get her life back. And that she has. With a program that includes an exercise routine involving weightlifting, golf, and Wii Fit games, Liz has improved every year. She’s now a vibrant 61 and volunteers as a golf referee.

Serious illness and injury can force people to accept a “new normal.” But many people experience more pain, fatigue, and disability than they have to. In short, they accept a “new normal” too soon. If you’ve been ill or injured or you are living with a chronic medical condition, aim for maximum healing—and don’t stop until you achieve it.

Julie K. Silver, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, has written several books on health. This essay is adapted from Super Healing (Rodale, 2007).

Putting Your Mind to It

Mental strategies that can boost your potential to heal

The body’s healing process isn’t entirely physical. Along with eating right, sleeping well, and exercising, the five mental and emotional tactics below comprise an eight-point plan for maximizing your powers of recuperation.

Reduce Your Pain Though pain may be a normal part of many conditions, it can interfere with healing by interfering with sleep or causing needless, recovery-delaying stress. If you are in pain, don’t be a hero: talk to your doctor and get some relief.

Consider Mind-Body Therapies Meditation, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation are all risk-free treatments that can reduce stress hormones and strengthen the immune system.

Monitor Your Mood It’s impossible to be in a good mood every day, even when you’re well. But how you feel emotionally will have an effect on how you physically heal, so it’s important not to give depression or anxiety the upper hand. In one 1998 study of dental students at Ohio State University in Columbus, small wounds that researchers created before a big exam took 40 percent longer to heal than identical wounds created during summer vacation. Each day plan activities that make you feel good, such as calling a cherished friend or drawing a bubble bath. If you find that you are down in the dumps or anxious day after day, seek professional help.

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