Staying On A Fitness Journey With Chronic Illness
In 2018 when I was at the height of my fitness journey, I never would have imagined the path I would be walking a few years later. Getting Covid in April of 2020 and now, over 2 years later, still suffering from the side effects of being a “Long Hauler” as they call us, hasn’t been easy. Having long Covid is tough to navigate, but what I know for sure, being at the peak of health when I contracted Covid is what kept me from an even worse fate. I was fortunate to fight and survive and find a way to live my life completely different.
So many people suffer from Chronic illnesses. Long covid is just one, and so many people have worse symptoms than I do. The last 2 years led to me changing my approach to exercise and nutrition. While I previously would train twice a day, prioritized power lifting and lots of cardio, I can’t do these extremes anymore. It’s important to know that there are many ways to prioritize your health and to trial many styles of training until you find what works best for you.
Switched to Low Intensity Training
High intensity training, whether it is fast paced or heavy weights, causes a greater stress on the body. My body does not handle high intensity well and I end up actually bloating more and gaining weight, despite training more intensely and seemingly burning more calories. When I noticed this, I switched to a lower intensity style of training that has really helped. This includes walks, hiking, easy biking, lower weighted resistance training and bodyweight/suspension training work. Swapping to this lighter form of training actually resulted in me losing more weight and my body feeling strong and regulated.
Breaking Up my Training Times
Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to do a longer workout. You may find it overwhelming to try and get in a 30-60 minute bout of exercise. There was a time when I did 1-2 hours of training a day and did it all together, that’s not even close to an option for me now. There’s nothing wrong with breaking up your workout into a few segments. This can also be a good idea to break up the day, while making exercise a bit less intimidating. Personally I will do a 10-15 minute yoga session in the morning, multiple 15-30 minute walks a day with my dog, and on most days some low intensity exercise for 20 minutes. As a personal trainer, some days I also teach exercise classes, and I’ll eliminate some of the extra exercise I am getting to make sure I don’t over-train. You’ll want to pay attention to your body and see what works best. You’ll notice whether a workout style leaves you fatigued or energized. Also, if you notice you are very sore and this impacts your quality of life, you may want to try something else. Work with your body!
Incorporating more stretching and flexibility work
The biggest benefit I have felt in my life has come from adding in daily stretching and yoga practices. Not only can I focus on flexibility in areas that have limitations, but it also comes with the added benefit of reducing stress and finding a sense of calm. The great thing is that this can be firmly tailored to each person’s needs. You can do whatever feels good to you and take as little as 5 minutes to do. Personally I devote about 15 minutes first thing in the morning to stretching and yoga and find my mornings to be more relaxing and my day is less chaotic.
Stress can be as debilitating as any physical injury, and should be managed the same way we should prioritize stretching and active recovery after exercise. While the act of stretching and yoga can also be great for lowering stress levels, a few other things that I do include:
Making sure to stop having caffeine after 3/4pm. Having caffeine too late impacts how much and how well you sleep. I used to drink coffee all day because I love the taste and found my days feel much calmer with a lot less caffeine.
Getting outside! Vitamin D is important and taking time outside can reduce stress while the Vitamin D helps with general energy levels
Take mental breaks! While we have to work long days at times, I take a mental break every hour for at least a few minutes and recharge my work battery!
Sleep: Almost every client I have ever worked with who describes their life as being very stressful, are not sleeping enough! I myself used to only sleep 4-6 hours a night and believed I could function just fine that way, but now that I sleep 8 hours a night, I realize how much the limited sleep impacted my day-to-day life.
Nutrition: While I’ll discuss nutrition in more detail below, taking a break from work and technology to eat can be a great way to relax. We tend to consume our meals while stimulated by some form of technology, and mindful eating can allow you to enjoy your food more and be more in tune with your hunger and full cues, which will reduce overeating!
Time off technology: The constant stimulation of technology can keep the brain highly alert. I have found taking time off technology, especially while outside helps to calm me and I generally feel happier after!
Self Care: While I have a lot of responsibilities and I can deal with pain and discomfort every day, I have my self care routine that has really helped me to reduce the impact of my Long Covid symptoms. This includes taking daily baths, meditation, creating a relaxing skin care routine to start and end my day and so many other things.
New Activities: Trying new activities really helps get me out of my head and then I can’t focus on the stressors in my life.
Prioritize experiences especially with others: Chronic illness made me want to shut myself off and not spend time with people. I felt like a burden, but then I realized it was only making things worse and secluding myself would do nothing good for my health.
Recognize when you need to walk away from something: Be aware of how things feel and impact you. Notice when things are “triggering” and find a way to reduce the impact. Stay tuned in to your body and your mindset.
Mindful hydration and food approach
When I feel bad, sometimes I don’t want to drink water. I want to eat nothing but ice cream and pizza. We often eat the way that we feel, and when we feel bad we just want to consume those feel good foods. It can be hard to eat well, so I make sure to plan out my meals in advance, including meal prepping every week. Then I am guaranteed I will have balanced meals. This doesn’t mean I eliminate the foods I crave, I just add them into my planned out meals. If I want some ice cream, I will have some after I finish my dinner vs. eating the icecream as my entire dinner! Then I am fully nourished. Eating well and hydrating properly helps me to set myself up for feeling as good as possible the next day. I know that if I throw my diet to the wind and eat whatever I want, I will regret it the next day, so I stay mindful!
It can be difficult to fit in movement if you don’t think ahead. Many of those suffering with chronic illness will have certain times of days where they have more energy or when they need more rest. If you can target the times you typically feel the best, then you can plan out when you will make exercise happen. Try to sign up for classes and have an accountability buddy to help you to be motivated to keep moving. I have found that while it can be hard to motivate myself to start exercising when I’m not feeling great, that I have never regretted a workout.
Rest and Recovery
Know when you need to skip a workout or swap for something low intensity like a walk. Also, it’s been vital for my health that I make sure I sleep 7-8 hours every night. If I skip this, my body will greatly rebel against me. I didn’t realize how much my reduced sleep was hurting me until I saw how I felt after getting plenty of sleep! Now I make sure to plan my life around getting enough sleep and if for some reason this doesn’t happen, I am mentally prepared to not feel great the following day.
It’s also important to know how much rest and recovery you need in order to avoid over-training. Start with a few workouts a week, and build up tolerance. Notice what exercises or style of training impacts your body the most, and what makes your body feel the best. The key for me was really tuning in to my body and what it needs to run the best. For me that’s low weight resistance training, hiking/walking and yoga/flexibility work. Find what works best for you!
Ultimately, my health journey has become mostly about patience and focus. I won’t say it’s easy to prioritize health with a chronic illness, but if you can stay focused on finding the right path, it is completely worth it. I live my life differently than before and I am forced to be very intune with my body. I can’t change that I have a chronic illness, but I can control how it impacts my life. I want to live a full and happy life and this is how I do it.
I hope you can find your path too and get back to living your best life.
Until next time… and remember health is for all!