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Why Movement IS Important EVEN When You Have a Chronic Illness

In case you didn’t know, I have a degree in Exercise Science and I’ve been a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine for 7 years now. I have speciality certifications in kettle bells and TRX. I don’t often talk about the fitness side of things because, well, let’s face it, food is amazing. But, we can’t forget about the importance of movement and that is exactly what todays post is all about :).

So, let’s talk about movement. Not just walking to your bathroom and everyday life movements. But extra movement. Fitness if you will. I’ve met a lot of spoonies who, like me, used to be fitness freaks- in amazing shape, always on the go, loved working out! They feel lost and hurt (I could make a whole post on just that! For another day…) that they can’t incorporate fitness into their life anymore. Or they feel at a loss about how to healthily incorporate movement to positively impact healing rather then slow it. Now, I’ve also met a lot of people who could care less about exercise but I’m going to be explaining to EVERYONE why movement is important and how to incorporate it when you’re dealing with a chronic illness.

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When you’re sick with a chronic illness- in pain, exhausted, depressed- the last thing you probably want to do or have energy for is exercise. But that’s probably when you should be making time for it the most. Why? Because it’s healing.

I’m not talking about going and deadlifting 300 lbs, squatting twice your body weight, and running sprints around the track. I mean, if you can do all that, great! I once could (okay maybe not THAT much weight) and hopefully one day I’ll get back to it. I’m talking about something as simple as walking for 10 minutes or stretching for 5. Yes, even just stretching counts when you’re chronically ill.

When I feel my worst, the last thing in the whole world I want to do is get out of my bed and stretch. But 9 times out of 10 it actually helps me feel better, at least a little bit. I explain why that might be below. Let’s first talk about WHY movement is important and then about WHAT KIND of movement you should be doing.

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So why is movement important?

1) Movement gets your blood flowing which increases oxygen to vital organs and tissues that are keeping you alive. Moving increases heart rate which increases the rate of blood moving through your system. Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body and we all know we need oxygen to survive. So more blood flowing through your system=more oxygen flowing through your system! Increased blood flow also helps reduce pooling of blood and blood clots due to sitting/laying all the time.

2) Movement also gets your lymph system flowing. Your lymphatic system is like the sewer system of your body, collecting junk, toxins, and bugs that need to be cleaned out. BUT your lymph system contains no pumps. Movement is what gets it flowing and out of you. Therefore, movement is important for detoxing!

3) On a similar note, increasing heart rate increases the temperature of your body. If you deal with Lyme, this can actually help kill off the bad bugs, which is great but is also why you need plenty of rest if doing harder physical activity (more on that below). Increased heart rate also means *possibly* getting a sweat going, depending on how hard you workout, which can help with detoxing your system from junk, bugs, or even a herx!

4) Exercise may boost your immune system, overall. This one gets tricky though. The type of exercise matters. Chronic or intense exercise can harm your immune system, but proper, moderate training can increase immunity. Exercise can increase hormones that have a positive impact on our immune systems (Brooks, 2007). Some research has shown that for about the first 12 hours post-exercise, your immune system actually decreases as your body recovers from the stress on it from exercise, then over the next ~24 hours, your immune system increases to slightly stronger then before. But this means that the 12 hours post exercise are crucial for instilling recovery tips. We will discuss this more below.

5) Movement, depending on the type, will help reduce muscle wasting, pain, and reduce (risk of) injury. If you are VERY sick and never leave your bed, I’m sure you are already aware of muscle loss. But muscle atrophy can have negative consequences. It can negatively impact your metabolism, increase the risk of osteoporosis or weakening of your bones, and more. Movement also has the ability to reduce pain and injury. I know this can seem counter-intuitive if you deal with pain but pain can stem from lack of movement due to stiffening of muscles from remaining in a seated or laying position. Injury can also result from this lack of movement/stiffening for various reasons.

6) Exercise releases endorphins, which can be EXTREMELY helpful if you deal with any sort of depression or anxiety (either on it’s own or in relation to another chronic illness). Endorphins are those “feel good” hormones people always talk about. They are what result in the “runner’s high”. Endorphins are essentially natural morphine, releasing positive feelings and reducing pain levels. Studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective or MORE effective then anti-depressants!

I could go on for days about the benefits of exercise. The list goes on, but I wanted to list some of the main few above, especially as they relate to illness.

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So what kind of exercise should you be doing?

The TYPE of exercise will depend on your illness/condition/health state. For the sake of this post, I’ll be using Lyme disease and similar autoimmune diseases as my reference and speaking highly to those who are still quite ill.

First things first, rest is number one. We are not here to push past all the pain and workout 5 days a week for the sake of the positive science behind movement. If you are ill, your body is using all it’s resources and energy to try and heal. We are simply here to add some movement into your routine that may INCREASE healing.

A general rule of thumb is that once you complete a workout, you should have enough energy to complete the whole thing again without feeling completely dead. If you finish a workout and feel totally exhausted, you probably did too much. Take AT LEAST 1 day off between workouts to allow for proper recovery when your health is already comprimised.

We also don’t want to do workouts that instill intense soreness (you know, that muscle recovery pain). Why? I know that pain can actually feel good (my workout fiend friends out there will understand) because then you know you got a good workout, but it also means you worked your muscles very hard. The more post-workout soreness you get, the more energy and resources it takes for your body to recover. The more energy and resources your body is using to repair those muscles instead of sending energy to vital organs and systems that already need repair when you are ill.

Again, depending on health level, it’s best to stick to workouts that are no longer then 20-30 minutes. This time frame helps prevent over-exertion and increased fatigue from prolonged activity.

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Now, in terms of types of exercise, we generally want to avoid intense routines like HIIT (high intensity interval) training, prolonged cardio, or HEAVY lifting. Cardio is great for your cardiovascular system and if you can handle low impact cardio (like walking, slow bike rides, calm swims), fantastic, but try to avoid long or intense cardio sessions (like running, spin classes, etc). Weight lifting or yoga is your best choice, for many reasons. Lifting can be easily tailored to both your fitness and health level. Stick to body weight or light weight exercises. Modify exercises as needed and choose between 4-8 exercises, 10-15 repetitions, 1-3x times. Weight training is great for muscle building, bone support, and even your cardiovascular system. Yoga is excellent for still building strength but also for stretching and for mental health. It is low impact and can be extremely easy, for lack of a better word. Yoga can also be as challenging as you want to make it once your fitness and health improve.

One last thing… stretching. This is important for EVERYONE! If you aren’t at a point where you can do much, or any, physical activity, try and implement a stretching routine.  We already discussed why some type of movement is important and guess what? Stretching counts! It prevents that extreme tightening of muscles that can lead to injury (yes, you can get injured just from laying in bed all day! Who knew?!). Implementing a stretching routine may also be the thing to help you leave your bed, even if it is just moving 5 feet to the floor, a few times a week (preferably daily). But, if all else fails, you can stretch in your bed!

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Let me tell you a little story to nail this point home. The summer of 2016, I was very sick again. I physically couldn’t do much. I could hardly sit up in bed long enough to eat something. Obviously I wasn’t stretching or exercising by any means at this time. I started to develop pain in my left hip and SI joint. I had previously had an injury in that area about 5 years ago. It seemed to be flaring up despite the fact that I wasn’t doing anything. But that is exactly why it flared up! The muscles in my hips had begun tightening up so much and weakening that my hips couldn’t handle it. I began to do 2-5 minutes of stretching just a couple of times a week when I felt able and my hip slowly began to heal. And I began to ever so slowly feel better overall because I was getting blood flowing.

Trust me, I KNOW how hard it can be to move when you think you are dying and barely have the energy to lift your hand to your mouth, but if you can manage just 30 seconds of stretching when you have a *good* moment it may actually contribute to overall body healing from chronic illness!

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Throwback to when I was in good shape! 😉

I hope you found this post useful and helpful in your movement and healing journey. If you have any questions or want me to elaborate more on any piece of the movement puzzle (or a specific piece from this post), let me know by commenting below!

 

Brooks, G. A., Fahey, T. D., & Baldwin, K. M. (2007). Exercise physiology: human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, Md.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

6 thoughts on “Why Movement IS Important EVEN When You Have a Chronic Illness”

  1. Hi Victoria, I joined an aquafit class this fall. I seem to be the youngest in the class of seniors but certainly not the most flexible/capable. It’s a great body stretch and workout. Never thought of it but was recommended by a physiotherapist. Best wishes to you, Patty

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    1. Aquafit is great- low impact, the water is good on the joints and it’s also soothing, plus it’s usually not too intense/you can easily adjust to your level. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying it! Keep up the awesome healing, Patty!

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  2. Hi. Thank-you so much for this post. I have been struggling with debilitating chronic pain for years and was recently diagnosed with Lyme. I have been working with a rehab-oriented personal trainer to keep me moving and not bedridden and this is the most useful article I have ever found on Lyme & exercise. I showed my trainer and she is going to share it with a lot of her clients. You are making a difference in the world! ❤

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    1. I am so happy to hear you found this post useful and shared it! Thank you so much for reading, sharing, and for your kind comment. My goal is to share my experience and what knowledge I have in hopes that it inspires and helps others or at least let’s them know they aren’t alone ❤

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  3. Thank you for this reminder! I don’t have a chronic illness (unless you count arthritis) but I am recovering from an serious injury and dealing with pain for 3 months now (and will be for several more months) and it is SO easy to use the pain as an excuse to not workout (or even take a walk). I am finally getting to the point where I am making myself do it because I know it will help (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). 🙂

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    1. I’m sorry for the injury and pain you are going through 😦 but it is very easy to use it as an excuse to not move. I’m glad you my post was a good reminder and I hope you not only start to feel better soon but that moving helps in your healing process!

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