How To Take The Pain Out Of Exercise

This blog post was originally written as a guest post for the blog Fed Up with Fatigue. To learn more about this blog go to https://fedupwithfatigue.com/.

We all know exercise is good for us. I haven’t yet met anybody who would refute that point. Especially doctors. When you go for your yearly checkup, they ­­always remind you to exercise, right?

 
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However, exercise can be too much for people struggling with autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease and other chronic pain or chronic fatigue disorders. I know that from firsthand experience. You see, I have Hashimoto’s, celiac disease and fibromyalgia, and for people like me, exercise can actually be a bad thing. It can aggravate the body and send it immediately into a pain flare.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. I would exercise, feel great, exercise more, push myself a little harder and then suddenly, I would lose my energy, feel totally wiped out and sometimes even develop a fever. My body would ache and feel like it was on fire. Even climbing the stairs would be a challenge. All because I ran an extra 5 minutes on the treadmill when I was feeling good. But yet, my doctors continued to tell me to exercise because it was good for me.

Technically, they’re right. Research has demonstrated over and over again that exercise is extremely beneficial for people with autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and other chronic pain or chronic fatigue disorders. Some of the proven benefits include:

  • Enhanced overall physical and mental health
  • Reduced anxiety and depression
  • Increased energy levels
  • Decreased fatigue
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduction in pain
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased or restored range of joint motion, even in individuals with chronic arthritic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Increased muscular strength and endurance, even in individuals with muscular or joint degeneration
  • General reduction in overall symptoms

So why does something that should be good for us leave us in so much pain? And how do people struggling with chronic pain reap the benefits of exercise without crashing?

Research has also demonstrated that physical and psychological stress can aggravate the symptoms of an autoimmune disorder and other such chronic conditions. Exercise produces elevated cortisol levels, which causes stress on the body. This means that the elevated stress on the body caused by exercise actually can be the cause of an immune system attack or a flare-up of pain within the body. This is the reason (in simple terms) that we feel terrible after exercise. I call this the “exercise to flare-up cycle.” We exercise, we have a flare-up, we rest and recover, and when we are finally feeling good again, we go back to exercise, and it starts all over again.

But the reality is not all exercise elevates stress and cortisol. We are taught by the fitness industry that exercise must be hard. We must push ourselves to run faster, longer, sweat more, push harder, lift heavier. We feel that if we don’t work hard, we didn’t do it right. No pain, no gain, right?

WRONG! Let’s change the conversation about exercise. We do need to work hard to exercise but not in the way that I described above. You can get strong without crushing yourself in the process. I believe exercise can be healthy and nourishing to the body.

So let’s break the exercise to flare-up cycle. Here are my Autoimmune Strong Steps to Exercising to Regain Health:

1. Stop Focusing on Weight Loss As The Goal

 Often, we push ourselves hard in the gym because we want to lose weight. However, I believe excess weight is not the actual health problem. Excess weight is just another symptom - a symptom of a body out of balance - and a body in pain is indeed a body out of balance. So, I encourage you to prioritize getting your body healthy rather than losing weight. It will be way more satisfying, I promise, and as your body comes into better balance, the weight will come off as a happy side effect!

2. Focus on Exercise for Health

 Instead of exercising for weight loss or as punishment for making bad food choices, look at it as a way to make your body healthy. Exercise has a long list of great effects on the body: It can boost your immune system, give you better sleep, increase your healthy heart function, reduce body aches and pains, and give you more energy and zest for life. In some cases, it has even reduced the effects of autoimmune disease and fibromyalgia. And, the proper exercise will make your body stronger and more capable of doing life activities like playing with your kids and grandkids, or walking the aisles of the supermarket, or trudging through snow in the dead of winter.

3. Skip The Endless Cardio

 We have been taught that cardio (running, walking, elliptical machines, etc.) is best for us to lose weight but it’s not. Actually it elevates our cortisol and inflammation and can trigger a symptom flare-up. So, instead of spending 45 minutes on the elliptical, you might be more effective with 20 minutes of proper strength and flexibility training.

4. Build Up Stamina Over Time

Start with the very basics of strengthening moves, and over time, you can gradually build upon them. Your body will adapt to more intensity over time if you start gently and increase gradually over time.

5. Always Move Your Body – Every Day

Lying on the couch all day is not the best way to take care of your body. Even on days when you don’t exercise, gentle stretching, foam rolling, a walk around your kitchen or a simple forward fold will help you feel better and recover faster.

6. Consider Other Lifestyle Approaches to Compliment your Exercise Routine

Eating non-processed foods, getting good sleep, practicing the art of relaxation and deep breathing, and finding time in your life for some joy and laughter will help support your body when it is under stress.

7. Be Kind to Yourself

 Don’t fret about not doing enough or working hard enough. Celebrate your successes, give yourself realistic goals and try to avoid negative self-talk. Treat yourself like your own best friend.

So, maybe you have read this list, and you know exactly how to apply my tips. Go for it! Your body will thank you. 

However, maybe these tips feel overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start. I encourage you to check out Autoimmune Strong, an exercise program designed specifically for people with fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme and similar conditions. Autoimmune Strong provides online workout videos that you can do in the comfort of your own home, so that you get the guided strength and flexibility training your body needs, as well as the Autoimmune Strong Food Guide, which helps you learn what foods to eat and what to avoid in order to lose weight and feel great. Click here to learn more about Autoimmune Strong and to access a FREE 7 DAY TRIAL. Or, enter your email address here and get a free Autoimmune Strong workout video delivered straight to your inbox. 

If you want to break the exercise to flare-up cycle, let’s start today. Follow these tips, change your mindset about exercise and food, and get ready to feel better.

Andrea Wool