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Why do I exercise with Chronic Illness?

With it being the start of the new year, I am sure you are one of many to include 'exercise' in your new years resolutions, or as I prefer, new years intentions. As with any goal, you need to have a strong why. Why do you want to exercise? If you don't fully know what your why is, you are far less likely to reach your goal whatever that may be.

Why should we exercise?

You probably already know how much exercise can help with our general health. It improves our strength and flexibility, both of which is important for us to function. It decreases our risk of chronic health problems such as heart disease and type II diabetes. It improves our mental health and wellbeing. It helps encourage a health weight and can help improve your sleep.

Even for those of us with chronic illnesses and health conditions, research shows exercise is good for us. A Cochrane study (Geneen et al, 2017) found strong evidence that exercise doesn't cause any adverse effects in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. It showed that exercise can lead to a decrease in pain and an increase in physical function, and consequently improve your quality of life.

And yet, when I exercise I don't notice any of these benefits. I am not sure my body even produces those happy post-workout endorphins people rave about. Quite often I feel a lot worse after exercising, pain can be higher, I feel even more fatigued and often adds to my nausea. It can be hard to find the 'why' when you feel this crap after doing something that supposedly help you.

Why I exercise?

Despite it being in my name that I am active, I still have days where I'm like ugh what is the point when this makes me feel horrific. Plus after a long long time I may start to feel myself getting stronger, then I have a setback and have to start all over again. And once you are on setback 101 you start to lose that energy and motivation to restart, again. So I regularly have to come back to, and focus on my why.

So these are my 'whys' in the hope that sharing them helps encouraging you to find yours:

1. Because if I didn't, I would be a lot worse

Although I don't want to guilt trip myself into exercising, I find this one helpful. Sometimes it's hard to see progress when you have chronic illness, because symptoms constantly fluctuate. But we are only human and seeing progress is a huge factor in affecting our motivation. So when I feel like I am stuck on a rut or I fed up of setback after setback, I think well if I hadn't tried at all, I would be way way worse than I am now.

2. Because I want to function

For me, the less I do, the less I am able to do. With Ehlers Danlos it's really hard to build up any kind of strength due to lack of collagen in our soft tissues. It's not impossible to get strong, it just takes a long long time. But then the minute you stop, you will lose any strength you've gained super quickly (I know, its really unfair). So for me, the stronger I can get, the more I can then do. I want to be able to walk and stand and sit unsupported. The weaker I am, the less I can function in everyday life. It's not like I want to run a marathon, I want to be strong enough to carry the laundry basket or unload the dishwasher. They are my true #goals, I just want to function as normally as I can.

3. To prevent injurys/further complications

With EDS, again due to the lack of collagen our ligaments can not do its job properly to stabilise and support our joints. Therefore we are more likely to overstretch our joints which can cause ligament, tendon and muscle sprains plus regularly dislocate or sublux our joints. The stronger our muscles are, the more they work to hold us together to prevent these injurys. Also exercising improves our proprioception, our bodies way of knowing where a joint is in space so we can learn to not over stretch and keep our joints in their optimal position.

With Lupus, I get deep bone ache style pains and muscle cramp like pains due to my immune system attacking my own body. Although exercise won't affect how active my immune system is, it does help to keep my joints moving to help prevent any stiffness and help manage any joint swelling.

And finally, with Postural orthostatic tolerance aka POTs the more you decondition, the worse your symptoms become. Although it's so hard when symptoms are severe to try and be vertical, staying horizontal all the time will just decondition us further. A graded exercise approach can help slowly reintroduce the body to functioning at different levels of being vertical, preventing the condition from getting worse.

4. To feel strong and in control

I like feeling strong. As a child I was super active, and in my teens I competed in both ballet and swimming competitions. Feeling weak, makes me feel rubbish and even more low in energy than when I am strong. I like to train and challenge myself with what I do, I'm naturally competitive with myself. Exercise helps me feel like I am in control of my body, as so many times I feel my health is very much out of my control. Maybe I am a bit weird, but I like feeling DOM's post-workout (Delayed onset muscle soreness - the pain you feel after exercising) as it shows I am actively helping myself to get stronger.

5. To feel like myself

Linking in with number 4, I like exercise as it helps me mentally take that time out for me as well as physically making me look like me. Exercise for me is like the ultimate form of self care, as I am doing it to help myself. This links in with self-compassion, that I am doing it to be kind to my body not to punish it. Sadly a lot of the diet and exercise culture is very much targeted at making you feel like you should exercise from a place of guilt such as '"work off that Christmas dinner" . Whereas thinking I am doing this for me, to help my health helps you see it from a positive angle.

I am not exercising for the perfect 'bikini body', I would 100% not work out as much if that was the only benefit - exercise is not worth the side effects for just that! But equally I do like being in shape as I feel like me and look like me. Plus the heavier I am, the more strain I am putting on all my joints making everyday activities like walking up stairs harder. So much can go wrong with you body, I just like to feel the best I can and give my body its best chance at coping with life!

What are your why's?

These are mine but yours may be very different and that's okay. It's about finding what really matters to you, such as being able to run around with your kids in the garden or being able to go to the gym with your partner together. If you base your 'why' on what you think you should be thinking, or based on how society makes you feel you probably won't comply with your exercise routine. For more information on how to exercise with chronic illness, have a look at my online exercise coaching services.

Lots of love,

Zoe xx

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