As I stumble along the path towards recovery, I'm reminded of a very simple, but powerful fact. I am not alone. There are likely mi...

How to Exercise with a Chronic Illness

As I stumble along the path towards recovery, I'm reminded of a very simple, but powerful fact. I am not alone. There are likely millions of people out there also suffering from chronic illnesses that follow a similar pattern to my own. That pattern being, I'm feeling great one minute, and the next I’m sick again. Now I have to suffer for awhile and slowly creep my way back out of illness and into recovery.

This is a pattern I've struggled through most of my life. As a child, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I managed to catch every bug that went around school (and still do catch everything my kids bring home). Then as a teenager and young adult, it was depression and anorexia that plagued me and dragged me down into the depths of hell on a regular basis. Then as an adult, there was the illness that was both my pregnancies, several injuries including a car accident, and now, the fun of SIBO. Basically one thing after another. But don't feel sorry for me, it's just life. The good thing from a life of chronic illness is, I'm very good at getting back into shape. Because of this, I figure I could offer up some tips on how to get this shit done. Keep in mind, I am no doctor, physical therapist, or anything of the like. This is simply a lifetime of illness talking.
Yoga w/ Sebastian, April 2011
Making your health a priority is really the only solution. That means getting enough sleep, reducing your stress level, eating healthy, and exercising. Easier said than done, I know! But today let's just talk about exercise. Specifically for those of us suffering from chronic or frequent illness, because let's face it, it's a little different for us than it is for the healthy athlete who rarely gets sick. They can go run a marathon or push themselves to the max at the gym and not feel the repercussions those of us less fortunate in our health do. For us, exercise needs to be well thought out. If we push too hard, it can often result in an injury or making us sicker. If we don't push at all, we'll be stuck in the rut of no or too little exercise, which isn't good either.
Yoga w/ Oscar, May 2016
The first hurdle is that oh-so-fine line between figuring out when you need to rest and when you need to get off your ass and start doing something. It's easy to make the wrong choice. If you sit on the couch for one too many days, it's that much harder to get moving again. On the other hand, pushing too hard before you're well often means a longer setback. What I've found works best is to never allow myself to not move at all for too long. Even if that just means getting up and pacing around the house and walking up and down the stairs a few times when you're sick. And as soon as you're up for it, go for an easy walk or do some very gentle yoga or stretching. It doesn't need to be intense, it just needs to be movement. Our bodies were not meant to be stationary.

Kid yoga
The next hurdle is listening to your body. Pain is your body’s warning system, the “hey you're doing this wrong or pushing too hard” signal. The old adage of "no pain no gain" is simply not true, or not entirely. I would say a little discomfort is normal, even good because it means you're working muscles that haven't been used enough. But true pain is not good. You have to honor your limits. It's the only way to avoid injury. I injured my right knee when I was about 11. It's given me hell on and off ever since. Now with a weakened immune system, it doesn't take much to make it hurt. To keep from re-injuring it, I've had to learn to actually stop when it hurts. To NOT push through the pain.

Sebastian & me, 4/21/2012, after my first 5k
And finally, the big hurdle: getting off your butt and moving. Once you're feeling back to health, it's important to increase your exercise VERY gradually. I have a bad habit of pushing too hard too soon and it never ends well. But if you can do it gradually enough, you can get back in shape without pain, injury, or more illness.

Let's talk examples. Say I’m just on the mend from being ill. The first couple of weeks, I start very gentle. How gentle depends on how sick I was and for how long. But for the average illness that lasts at least a week, like the one I'm in the midst of now (damn forest fires kicking my asthmatic ass), I'd say it looks something like this:

Walk Yoga Run/Bike Rest
Week 1 1 mile, 2-3x/ week 15-20 min., 2-3x/ week 2x/week
Week 2 1 mile, 3x/ week 15-20 min., 5x/ week 1-2x/week
Week 3 1 mile, 2-3x/ week 30 min., 5x/ week 1-2x/week 1x/week

Then by week 4 I'm back to normal, except at a relatively low intensity. If I make it past a month without getting sick again, then I start increasing distance and intensity. I know not everyone likes yoga, and that is totally fine. If it's not for you, find something else that's equally stress relieving and can be done in a relatively low intensity matter. If all you do is high intensity exercise, you will have a much more painful experience of getting back into shape. I used to be that person so I get it. But at some point you just get sick to death of injuring yourself and realize, hey, if I don't listen to my body, this isn't going to change. After all, doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is indeed the definition of insanity. So be sane, be nice to yourself, and your body will be nice to you in return.

Sebastian & me, 3/5/2013, after my first 10k
Depending on your specific health issues, you might be thinking it's not even worth exercising because you never make any progress. I feel your frustration as I have the same one. Progress the last, over 2 years now, has been at a snail’s pace. But I've been in really good shape enough times to want to feel that good again. Everything in my body functioned better, so I know if I can get there again, it will help my recovery. And exercising even a little is still better than none. I bounce back from each relapse much quicker than when I'm doing nothing. So basically, I refuse to give up. And I wish the same determination for you too! 😁