Disclaimer – this is not a substitute for medical advice, this blog post is based on my own experience of exercise with a chronic illness.
Over the past 15 years I’ve struggled with chronic pain caused by endometriosis. I’ve been much better lately, and been able to manage most of my symptoms, but one of the things that used to drive me mad was when people would suggest that a “cure” for my chronic illness was to exercise (wilfully ignoring the fact that there is no cure – but we’ll skip over that). Yeah, I understood the benefits of exercise but the thing that no one was able to tell me was HOW to exercise when I had no energy and was in constant pain?!
The thing to remember is that exercising with a chronic illness will look different for everyone and will depend on many factors such as the type of illness, treatments, how you’re feeling etc. Lots of people will have different opinions about what you should do, but only you will know what you’re able to manage. With that in mind, I’ve set out some guidelines below to help you if want to exercise but don’t know how or where to start:
1. Rethink what you mean by exercise
Exercising when you are having a flare-up of a chronic illness will likely look different to how you exercise when you are feeling healthy. That’s fine – don’t force yourself to do something you aren’t well enough to do. Exercise can take a lot of different forms – walking is a form of exercise, stretching is a form of exercise, and (just to conform to the classic recommendation) yoga is a form of exercise. What you feel like doing will almost certainly be different from day to day – trust your body but don’t push yourself too far.
2. Stretch and move
Even if you don’t feel up to doing something like a full workout or going for a run, just stretching and moving is really good for your body. Your joints will have different ranges of motion, and if you’ve been chronically ill you will likely have been inactive which will likely reduce joint mobility. By stretching and taking your joints through their full range of motion, you can reduce muscle stiffness, improve your joint health, posture and can help manage stress. Stretching and taking your joints through their range of motion can also often be done even if you have limited ability to get up and about.
3. Concentrate on breathing
If you struggle to move about much, deep breathing exercises can be a good way to relax and relieve stress – and it can even help you sleep better! As you might know, these are some common benefits of exercise and, bonus, breathing exercises can be done standing, seated or lying down!
4. Timing is key
Many people with chronic illnesses suffer from severe lack of energy. Depending on your symptoms, there might be a particular time of day when you feel more capable of exercising. Listen to your body and don’t force yourself to do something just to stick to a schedule.
5. Be kind to yourself
Remember that exercise won’t always be possible, so don’t force yourself. Your body isn’t useless and it hasn’t betrayed you (I know that’s how I felt), just try to be patient and do what you can. Even moving a small amount is better than nothing, so take small steps and celebrate any little wins.
As much as I didn’t appreciate people telling me to exercise, it honestly did help. The thing that worked for me was working out in the same way I did when I had no symptoms by pushing through the pain. That was quite an extreme approach and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but as my physical strength and fitness improved, so did my symptoms. If you think that exercise might help you, I’d encourage you to try to find something that works for you!