Let’s talk about burnout. Exhaustion. Going full tilt and then hitting the wall. Many folks with the Combined Subtype of ADHD, Hyperactivity and Impulsivity, consider their ability to go full-tilt, driven, non-stop, hyper-focused to be “An ADHD Superpower.” It can be a strength, for sure, but it’s what follows – hitting the wall, that’s a huge problem. One I’m learning to avoid, or preempt, or at least forestall.
This story begins with me doing something I swore I never would. Ever. And yet, a few years ago, I find myself on the way to the gym. Ava is already going there for Zumba classes, so I tag along, just to see. In short order I have a trainer, Zev, who is 1/3 my age and 173 times healthier.
Picture me awkwardly gripping 10 lb kettle bells, which look like gigantic lead earrings, squatting and rising 15 times. In a row! Without a nap or a snack!
Fifteen ‘Reps.’ They’re called Reps because fitness trainers are all about progress and can’t waste time on four syllable words like Repetitions. I’m too out of breath for more than one syllable, so it’s good.
Zev keeps me on track, correcting my position, “Shoulders down…Good. Ten more… Shoulders down… Eight more. Core tight… Bent legs…. That’s it. Just five more… Core tight. Legs bent. Three… Shoulders down… And done. Good job!” He tries not to sound like a proud parent celebrating their toddler making it to the potty in time.
The Importance of Taking Breaks
Fifteen reps, then we pause for one minute. A full minute. Zev offers some feedback, or explains why this exercise helps, or what muscle it works. Then we start again, or rather, I start again. Fifteen more wobbly squats, then another minute break, “Better. Keep focusing on your core,” then into my final fifteen ‘reps.’
Zev makes sure these interludes last a full minute, timed by the stopwatch on the phone permanently cupped in his hand. Obviously he feels I need extra breaks, but other people with rippling muscles are doing the same thing. 10, 15, 20 reps, and then a break.
In the early days, being completely out of shape, I slyly try to extend that precious 60 second vacation by asking Zev questions, or sharing hilarious stories. A child could see through these pathetic attempts at procrastination. Somehow, Zev is able discern if I honestly do require a bit more recovery time by my flushed face, breathless panting, and wobbly stance. Or not.
Eventually I learn to simply speak it, “Give me a few more seconds.”
This isn’t a ‘Boot Camp,’ so he’s not shouting in my face like a drill sergeant, “Give me 30 more, maggot!” Yet he isn’t coddling me. I wish! He can sense exactly what I’m capable of doing, especially when I’m equally convinced I cannot. Naturally, I’m always surprised at what I can do, and he is not.
Pushing Through – I’m Driven
On other exercises, like the Leg Curl, I don’t need a full minute to recover. Actually, my muscles do, but unlike with the squatting routine I’m not gasping and grunting like wild animals in mating season.
With ADHD comes impatience, so after 30 seconds I settle in and hook my legs to do more Reps. Cocky me. Zev has me chill, “Not yet. Take a sip of water…” Our roles reverse, and he chats and asks me questions to extend the break, knowing this in-between time or as we Gym Rats (haha!) call it, ‘recovery time,’ is as important as the actual exercise.
Understanding the science of building strength and stamina, he explains why these breaks actually speed up the process. What he says makes total sense, and a week later I’ve forgotten what he said exactly (Thank you ADHD). It was something about avoiding over-straining, but I definitely recall he made sense, so I trust Zev and follow his instructions.
He also adjusts what we’re doing week to week, based on what I can handle. What was doable last week proves to be too hard this week. This is not a linear progression, more like, “Two kettle bells forward, one kettle bell back.” Very much like my progress managing my ADHD.
Exercise and ADHD
Weights and exercise machines can be dangerous, so they require concentration, repetition, and noticing where my body is. (Damn, shoulders are up, again!)
Exercise is great for ADHD as well. My energy rises. My stamina builds. My mood gets sunnier. Everything John Ratey talks about in his book Spark. Then, Zap! In March the gym, and every other business in the mall shuts down due to COVID.
For the next two months I rarely muster the will or focus to exercise. Then, slowly, I am starting to recover my equilibrium. Yoga every morning. (Well, most mornings) Ava and I walk every day. (Almost.) And I exercise with weights and bands, or do pushups against the kitchen counter while the toast is toasting.
Fifteen reps, and then a break. Not over-doing it or repeating the same exercises two days in a row. Changing it up. Because the muscles need those one-minute breaks to recover, and at least a day to repair and re-build the muscle tissue, or something like that. I don’t recall exactly. Ask Zev.
The point is, I allow myself breaks when I exercise.
So why don’t I ever take breaks when I’m working? Instead I push forward, until I’m literally dizzy, thinking that this is my only way to finish a script or a scene, all the while failing to acknowledge things aren’t getting finished. I’m simply farther along because I kept going until I was out of gas, drained. And that feeling of burnout was so strong, I resisted starting again the next day.
A different coach helped me with this. I’ll explain in my next blog. For now, let’s take a break. Maybe grab a sip of water and stretch, like Zev would want you to do.
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