Staying Fit with Chronic Illness Required Me to Redefine “Exercise”
How one writer found her balance with fitness in the face of multiple illnesses.
After beginning grad school, I went from being the fittest and healthiest of my life to gaining ten pounds and regularly experiencing nausea, tension headaches, and at least one migraine per week. My doctor and Google agreed that exercise is a protective factor against chronic migraines, so I attempted to re-establish a consistent fitness routine after having ditched the gym to focus on hundreds of pages of dense reading each week, along with in-depth writing assignments and a research assistantship.
In my attempt to regain fitness, I began riding my bicycle the several miles to and from school each day. I also took advantage of my university gym’s free classes and enrolled in step aerobics. Unfortunately, increased sensitivity to a variety of stimuli such as light, sound, smell, and movement is a common symptom of migraine. I quickly found that the loud city noises and strong odors I encountered on my bike rides triggered nausea and headaches. The loud music and aggressive jumping around in step aerobics also triggered migraines.
I felt stuck. The exercise I engaged in to ease my pain ended up increasing it.
Little did I know, I was beginning a life-long journey of maintaining fitness while struggling with chronic illness. In the years since my early days with migraines, I’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and more.
All of these disorders share fitness-related commonalities: daily exercise reduces symptoms, but the illnesses often make exercise feel difficult, and too much or the wrong kind of exercise leads to flare-ups. It’s a catch 22 - I need exercise to feel better, but exercising often makes me feel worse.
I’ve tried many types of exercise over the years: Zumba, Pilates, running, weightlifting, yoga, Capoeira, swimming, and more. In Zumba and Capoeira, I nearly fainted because of POTS. After group Pilates and yoga classes, I had increased fibromyalgia pain for days because instructors “guided” me into painful positions. I realised group classes aren’t the best for me. Because my illnesses are invisible and I look relatively young and fit, many instructors assume I can do things that will actually hurt me.
For years, I continued to measure myself against the fitness world’s “go hard or go home” and “no pain no gain” mentality. I’d push myself past my limits, then judge myself when my illnesses flared up or I couldn’t do certain exercises. Finally, I began to accept that for me, pain during exercise is absolutely not “weakness leaving the body,” it’s an important signal.
Although I enjoy being active and fit, I feel disconnected from much of the fitness world since my mentality is so different from what I see in inspirational Instagram quotes and at gyms. I’m not trying to whip my body into shape; I’m trying to listen to it and nurture it with gentle exercise.
Achieving balance in fitness required me to reconceptualise the idea of “exercise.” When I feel pain, I need to stop exercising, not push through. I’ve also learned to accept that, for me, exercise won’t always come in neat 30 or 60-minute blocks of time. It won’t always involve going to the gym or taking a class. Sometimes, gentle movement in 10 or 15-minute blocks at different points in the day is what I need to get activity in without pushing myself into increased pain or fatigue.
Now, my exercise routine involves using a rowing machine in my bedroom, doing yoga at home at my own pace, and taking walks with my dog. I enjoy these forms of activity and feel good about listening to my body, instead of trying to achieve externally-set fitness goals. I know I might have to switch up my exercise routine again in the future, and finally, I am fine with that.
Words by Jay Summer
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