Caption: This past June, North Carolina dentist Dr. Desiree Walker, shown, was a featured athlete on NBC’s extreme obstacle competition, American Ninja Warrior.

By Desiree Walker, DDS (@sarahdesiwalker)

“A great dentist”; “a kind dentist”; “a gentle dentist”—these were the normal, positive phrases that I hoped that my patients would use to describe me.  Never did I think that one of the adjectives would be “Ninja” and never did I think that many of my patients would refer to me as the “Ninja Dentist.” But I am, at least locally, thanks to the NBC show American Ninja Warrior.

This past June, I was a featured athlete on American Ninja Warrior, the heart-racing, extreme obstacle competition, and ran the course.  Not only did I get to showcase what one of the hosts called the most epic fall this season, but also myself, as a dentist and an athlete. The opportunity was a thrill of a lifetime, but the biggest blessing was the chance to share my story of dentistry and fitness; two topics that are rarely blended together.  It was a chance to encourage females, dentists and professionals, that wellness, exercise and movement can be integrated into any lifestyle.

The events began unfolding back at the end of April. I was in my office on a Saturday afternoon, re-bonding ortho brackets on my husband Ash, when I got a call on my cell phone.  I never answer calls while in the operatory with patients, of course, but this was a different situation, especially with the patient being my husband and the call coming from Los Angles, the complete opposite end of the country.  I de-gloved and answered.
The conversation went as follows:  “This is Claire, one of the producers from NBC.  We received your application and tryout video for American Ninja Warrior.  Would you be interested in participating on the show in Miami?”

Wow – I wasn’t expecting that! Several months ago, I did a spur-of-the-moment iPhone video of one of my actual training workouts in my house.  It was the last day for submission of the application to the American Ninja Warrior Show, and we were snow bound in our homes.  I did a brief introduction and filmed the workout.  I sent in the video and application that evening, not thinking much about my chances of being chosen.  I was in the third full month of my ground-up construction, start-up dental practice. It was consuming most of my time, focus and energy.

But, Claire from American Ninja Warrior was on the other end of the phone with the athletic opportunity of a lifetime. No matter how exhausted, tired or busy I was with my practice, I was going to make this happen! I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to compete on the show.

Back in dental school, I was not the athlete that I am today. Yes, I did exercise, but my body was not well.  I was in a back brace – almost 24/7 due to debilitating musculoskeletal pain. I had daily excruciating neck and back pain that lead me to thoughts of dropping out of dentistry altogether. I did exercise, but most of it was of the endurance nature and seated on a stationary bike.  I was spending a majority of my waking hours seated and hunched over patients and books, and then again, seated and hunched over my bike.

I saw sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors and massage therapists for my chronic pain. I realized my body was starved for movement.  Yes, I exercised but the seated bike wasn’t real movement, it wasn’t the movement I needed.  I wasn’t mobilizing my shoulders, back, neck or hips so they could function like they should. I was in one position mainly all day long and that was making me sick, causing dysfunction and thoughts of leaving dentistry altogether – before I really even started. I didn’t give up, but plunged forward and began dosing my body with the movement it craved.

Throughout the past 6 years I dived into functional and mobility training, as well as yoga, Pilates, gymnastics and ballet.  I have developed a training regimen that “cured” my skeletal dysfunction and also shaped me into the athlete I am today.  What is the secret?  Engineering movement back into my day – no matter what!   No more hunched with rounded shoulders for hours over patients or seated at a desk or stationary bike.  I have hacked my life space, my home, and my office for movement. In my personal office at work, I have a chin up bar over my doorway, wooden stall (wall) bars mounted on my wall, gymnastics rings bolted from the ceiling, a yoga mat, a wall mounted stand up desk and no chair.  In my home, I have a similar set up with wall bars, mats, two sets of rings and an additional climbing rope in my living room. An environment that encourages me to move surrounds me and this makes me feel so very blessed.

My routine during the week is as follows: I wake up every morning and smoothly transition to my movement/training circuit before work.  At the office, the team huddle begins with a yoga stretch routine and fun movement sequence.  Just the other week, for “Throwback Thursday,” we relearned the Macarena dance and got some good laughs in before we began the work day.  (And what a difference that makes in morale and positive energy!)  Throughout the day, I take movement breaks between patients, which consist of 30-second routines I’ve developed to stretch my shoulders, neck and back.  I carry pocket-size exercise bands in my lab jacket and I sneak out for a quick stretch as I transition between patients and operatories.  After all patients have left for the day and my last clinical note is complete, I devote 15 minutes to creative “ninja training” (I make up a fun new training circuit) or meditative stretching and/or a mobility session, whatever my body seems to call me to do that day.  It’s in these last several minutes that I deposit any remaining, residual stress and ready myself to head home in a positive mindset.

I don’t know a single dentist who has practiced dentistry for a decade or more that has not had any back or neck pain. For many, it has ended or shortened their career. It seems to be inevitable in the profession but I believe by incorporating the right movement patterns this will not hold true. My symptoms of musculoskeletal dysfunction appeared early on and led me to a “painful” inspiration of change.  I am looking forward to helping others in my profession engineer movement back into their day like I have done and experience the healing and well-being that it brings.  When you feel better, you do better, you are better – and to me, that is what it is all about.

Dr. Desiree Walker (@sarahdesiwalker) of Lumber River Dental, is a native of Fairmont, North Carolina. She lives in Robeson County with her husband Ash.