I was diagnosed at age 14 with an autoimmune disease named Takayasus Arteritis (and much later with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis). I talk a lot about this diagnosis and what happened afterwards (i.e. an eating disorder, prednisone, remicade, humira, etc.), but I don't talk much about what was going on beforehand.
The years before I was diagnosed with TA (and before the onset of any symptoms), I was a competitive swimmer. I had been swimming year-around since the age of 8 and loved the longer, more grueling events such as the 200 fly, 400 IM, 1650 freestyle, and 200 back. While I certainly wasn't an up 'n coming superstar, I was fast enough to start thinking about a scholarship to a DI school. Or, at least, this was the path my coaches and I thought we were walking.
That path started to blur when I struggled to finish one lap down the pool let alone an entire 400 meter Individual Medley. All of sudden, my energy levels plummeted, my hands went numb and blue during practices, I sat out sets shivering on the bench, and I wasn't sleeping throughout the night. My coach (as awesome as he was) thought I was simply lacking motivation. That I wasn't trying and needed to get tougher or push through. At the time, I was frustrated... thinking maybe he was right and I'd lost "my edge". And even now, looking back, I can't blame him. When you have an "invisible illness" your symptoms aren't tangible. They aren't easily understood. Heck, I didn't even know what was going on... other than knowing all of a sudden I could hardly bring myself to do anything.
Getting diagnosed with TA gave "formality" and answers to my in-the-pool struggles, though internally I didn't feel much better. Sure, I could still talk about who I used to be in the pool -- and how an illness changed all that. I could share my previous times and personal bests. But honestly? No one cared anymore. There was nothing visible to see when it came to the difference in how I could move. The arteries that were "officially" narrowed? Only the MRI can see that. The fatigue that creeps up my left arm when I've used it too much? Only I can feel that -- and I never know when it'll start. Invisible illness is named so for a reason. Our symptoms aren't the only pain we feel. The misunderstanding -- the ignorant expectations -- can hurt just as much.
I share this part of my story to tell you that fitness and physical activity have always been important parts of my life. Although the movement I could handle changed when I was diagnosed, I was determined to find a way to just. keep. moving. If you're reading this and feeling the same way -- maybe wondering how to move now that you have this extra "variable" to consider -- here are 5 ways to safely workout with chronic illness and autoimmune disease.
I have one lonely page bookmarked in my copy of The Paleo Approach (by author Dr. Sarah Ballantyne). It's a yellow post-it-note placed strategically on a paragraph titled "It's All Connected". The words below this sticky note talk about strenuous exercise and its role in a leaky gut and what even counts as strenuous exercise to begin with.
This one lone sticky note is there because this is a topic I have to come back to over and over again. I love exercise but, when you're dealing with autoimmune disease, everything can be a trigger and normal "suggestions" aren't always applicable. (Including those regarding movement.) Things that are traditionally helpful, like using oils, vitamins, or gummies to strengthen the immune system, can actually make matters worse. When you're diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you're told, in essence, that your body is attacking itself. We eventually start to question everything as a possible trigger... taking note of what causes our symptoms to feel better AND what causes flare ups to stay for days.
If you have an autoimmune disease and (1) wonder how to incorporate movement without worsening your symptoms, (2) work out consistently 5-6x week and are starting to notice signs of overtraining, (3) don't work out at all, or (4) hate exercise and feel forced to do it, then keep reading. In this blog post, we'll talk about some of the best and worst exercises for autoimmune disease and chronic illness AND how exercise can help (and even hurt) when it comes to optimizing your body for healing.
I'm not a doctor and I'm not going to tell you which exercises to do for your specific body or health challenge. Instead, I'm going to introduce to you some movements that may be beneficial even if you're suffering from health challenges. Always talk with your doctor before making any fitness or lifestyle changes.