Most chronic illnesses result in some level of fatigue and/or discomfort. Moving around, let alone exercising can seem awful on every level. And, if you’re like me, sometimes moving around will actually trigger pain.
But believe it or not, moving can help ease your symptoms.
Now, I’m only going to speak from the lens of Crohn’s Disease, but upon researching other ailments- Fibromyalgia, Celiac Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Chronic Fatigue- it seems very universal. Though laying in a ball curled up on the couch is often preferred, moving your body, even in the slightest, is opportunity for you to begin to function at a higher level, and therefore heal you faster and ease your symptoms. Obviously, if you’re dealing with severe pain and moving just isn’t an option, don’t move. In fact, stay as still as you can until you’re well enough to get moving again. Then, when you actually can move, you’ll appreciate a quick jaunt down the sidewalk even more than you could imagine.
I remember after I got out of the hospital, for the weeks I was still hunched over in pain, walking the dog was such a monumental task. Murray (my furbaby) was great, and would go slow with me, but I was determined to make it around the block. Now, when I feel really great, I take him as long as I can (before the Florida heat gets to us) and embrace my ability to stand up straight, and walk fast. Something so simple has become really special.
You CAN move too much.
Exercising too hard can actually cause more harm than good. Pushing yourself can and should take on new meaning, where you’re not “giving it everything you’ve got” at the gym, but you’re getting just outside of your comfort zone enough to make a small difference. In yoga, we talk about the concept of “edge.” And edge for you is completely different than edge for me. It’s the point at which the real benefit can happen. If you push yourself too far past edge, your body will do everything in its power to find a way out. There’s also some big factors that can really mess with you if you’re not careful.
- Dehydration– Heavy exercise where you excrete a lot of sweat means that you really need to have enough fluids and electrolytes to replenish what is lost. In the Crohn’s world, dehydration can lead to constipation and other abdominal discomfort, which I know is something we all don’t want any more of.
- Not Breathing– Ok, yes, we need to breathe to live, but there are ways in which you can use breathing to help or hinder your exercise. Breathing allows for your body to take in Oxygen, which it needs to function properly. So if you’re constantly holding your breath when you lift, or not taking full deep breaths while doing cardio, you’re doing your body a huge disservice.
My favorite ways to move:
Good old fashioned, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other style walking. None of that crazy speed walking those Olympians do. (Have you ever tried it?! It’s impossible!) Walking in it’s many forms is great for your body on so many levels. First, it’s low impact, so your joints are protected. If you’re suffering from a chronic condition, often times arthritic symptoms tag along to your long list of other fun shit you get to deal with, so any high-impact can often cause more pain. Believe it or not, a quick 15 minute walk after each meal can actually aid in digestion, lower blood sugar levels, and get your heart pumping. Also, walking is accessible to almost everyone who is capable of walking. You can walk around your office, walk around the block, walk to the store, walk on the treadmill… If you’re in the middle of a flare, take it really slow. The great thing about walking, is you can pace it out however you’d like. If you’re feeling great, go brisk!
Just another derivative of walking, hiking is my favorite form. In the last year, Brian and I have hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland, and 4 days on the Appalachian Trial in Shenandoah National Park (the picture above.) Hiking allows you to walk (sometimes uphill, sometimes downhill) while de-stressing with exposure to nature. You get to see beautiful sights, hear amazing sounds, and if you’re lucky, get up close and personal with some local wildlife. Our hikes along the West Highland Way and Appalachian Trail have made me feel the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been, even if I’m not 100%.
This is probably the best thing you can do for your chronic illness. The depression and anxiety that often come with chronic conditions can take hold of a person and give your illness that much more of the edge. However, yoga has been used for centuries to create mindfulness and have yogis get in touch with their bodies. I know the age old objection of, “I can’t touch my toes,” is out there. In fact, I hear it every time I suggest yoga to someone I know could benefit from it. Here’s a little secret… You don’t have to touch your toes (or even be close) to glean the benefits of a good yoga regimen. In yoga, we focus on pairing the breath with the movement, allowing your body to stay connected to itself and its abilities. I have been to yoga classes on days where my intestines are so inflammed, it’s uncomfortable to walk. But, through slow, controlled movements, conscious breath, and meditation, I’ve been able to come out of class just a little bit better. By no means do I think that if you get a 10 class pass and do some yoga that you’ll cure your illness. But, I can say from experience that a little yoga goes a long way. By believing in the power of yoga, you can begin to train your body to heal itself. A piece of advice: Pick a class or online video that’s right for you in that moment. For example, I gravitate toward Power Flow classes, but on days where I’m having a hard time, a Restorative or Gentle Flow is exactly what I need at the time. A friend once told me, “you’ll never regret going to a yoga class.” She was right.
This is one of my all time favorite things to do in general, let alone to get my body moving. Especially when it comes to Crohn’s disease (and so many other ailments, I’m sure) the ability to feel weightless for just a little bit of time allows you to almost forget about the pain. Every time I’m in a pool, I feel like my intestines can take a break from their movement, and loud noises and just chill out for a few hours while I paddle around. Swimming is the lowest of low impacts, and you can get your cardio in. And, in the hot summer months, when exercising outside seems like a terrible idea (almost every day in Florida,) swimming is the perfect alternative! It’s cold, crisp, and a perfect outdoor summer activity. It’s a win win win win win, in my opinion.
Movement in whatever way you can tolerate it will help you in one way or another.
Whether it’s just giving you a change of scenery for a brief moment on a walk down the street, or getting your heart pumping during a power yoga class. Whatever it is that you enjoy, try to do it, and do it often. Find what works (and doesn’t work) for you, and begin to learn and grow with it. I’ve practiced yoga for over a decade, and only recently have I learned who I am as a yogi. I’ve learned to back off when I need to, to push harder when I can, and to embrace the fact that I’m here, I’m alive, and I can move.