In the Happy Days blog of the New York Times earlier this week, Leonard Mlodinow wrote about the limits of control. We all know of too many examples of the negative effects of control: "control freaks" who strive to control every little thing, making themselves and those around them miserable; or make bad decisions based on faulty assumptions that they can control outcomes.
On the other hand, humans need to feel some sense of control to be happy. Without control, people suffer the effects of depressions and stress, even disease. Mlodinow writes about the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's conclusions that survival in Nazi concentration camps depended on the ability to keep some areas of "independent action" - of control.
The empowerment of control is one of the benefits I always stress when I talk about exercise and cancer. All of the well-documented physical benefits are important (improved quality of life, fewer side effects of treatment, improved immune function and treatment adherence, and lower risk of recurrence for some cancers). But equal to all of those benefits is the sense of control.
There is so much we can't control in our disease and our fight. But no matter how out of control we may feel, there are things we can control.
I was young and very healthy when I was diagnosed. I was in my 30s, ate well, didn't smoke, exercised, and had almost no history of cancer in my family. And yet I developed breast cancer. I had no control over that. I had no control over what my cells were doing. I didn't control them as the cancer cells were multiplying. I didn't control whether they were being killed by chemotherapy drugs or radiation. I was not in control of that! But I could control if I went outside for a walk. I could control my bicep muscle. In the face of the tsunami that is cancer, that may seem like a very small point, but at the time, it was huge - it was everything!
We have many opportunities for control. We have choices. We can choose something positive and empowering, or choose to abdicate.
Fitness is one area in which we do have some control. We can choose to take the stairs or lift the milk five times before putting it away. We can choose to go for a walk. If even getting out of a chair is difficult, we can choose to do some leg lifts to strengthen our legs, or struggle to get out of the chair, then sit back down and get up again.
These, and a hundred other examples, are our choices. We have control. And in that moment of choice, choosing the positive, the healthful, is powerful! Use that power; savor and enjoy it!