If you've known me for a while, you'd probably be surprised to hear that, at the moment, I don't work out regularly. You'd probably be surprised to find out that I don't go to the gym, I hardly work up a sweat and I no longer care about how much weight I can lift or how fast I can run.
You'd probably also be surprised to learn that I haven't felt better in years.
On the other hand, if we're just know getting to know each other, you'd probably be surprised to hear that I swam competitively all through college. That after college, I trained for a half-marathon, took up Crossfit and barely gave myself more than one day of rest each week.
You'd probably be surprised to learn that I went from two-a-day collegiate swim practices to daily 60-minute Crossfit workouts to the 30 minutes (or less) of restorative yoga I do now.
I promise, I'm not sharing this to discount the value of formal activity or a good daily grind at the gym. That type of repetitive movement and pushing of physical and mental limits was all I did for years -- and it was one of the greatest forms of self-care I could have possibly imagined.
Instead, I'm sharing this because there came a time in my life where my love for a good workout was no longer helping my body (or my health). There came a time where the desire to push my limits and move in traditional ways didn't leave me feeling well. I'm sharing this because I had to rewrite the beliefs I held about exercise, health and what makes a workout "good" -- and sharing because maybe you do, too.
This is for you if you find that traditional exercise advice isn't all that practical for the season of life (or health) you're in!
To kick us off, here's the thing we often forget about exercise.
Exercise is a stress.
Even more, stress is cumulative... so that the amount of stress the body is under is the TOTAL sum of stress in our lives. Which means, we need to add the amount of stress placed on the body from illness (or recovery) PLUS the amount of stress on the body from daily life PLUS the amount of stress placed on the body from big life transitions or difficult seasons PLUS the amount of stress placed on the body from things like exercise, lifestyle and work.
And when we add all of that up... it can be a lot of stress, right?
If you've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or chronic illness, you've probably been encouraged a time or two to look at the amount of stress in your life (and probably encouraged to reduce it). But have you been encouraged to look at your exercise practice, too?
It's so tricky because exercise is ideally a positive stress, so that certain types of exercise are really, really great for managing disease and keeping a healthy lifestyle. The question isn't.... How do I stop moving? ... but is... How do I move in ways that feel good and help my body heal?
(If you're curious, here's an article about the best (and worst) types of exercise for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.)
Asking this question in particular is so important because stress can lead to inflammation in the body and inflammation is related to chronic illness. We want to be careful to not add so much stress that we take ourselves out of short-term stress (which by itself is super awesome) and into chronic stress (which has a significant effect on the immune system).
Basically, if you’re doing everything you can to feel better, and still not seeing the results you want, consider taking an "exertion" inventory.
In general, where do you currently exert a lot of energy in life? Is there any area in which you could be pushing or striving to a point where it's physically affecting your body?
As you take this inventory, make sure to also question your exercise practice.
Does your body tolerate the amount of exercise you're currently doing or trying to do? Could you be overexerting yourself during a formal workout? Or perhaps with other physical movement throughout the day?
Not only is it easy to over-train with an autoimmune disease or chronic illness, but some also experience exercise intolerance. (Which, simply put, means the body is not able to tolerate a particular type, amount or intensity of movement.)
As you look at the exertion in your life (that "go, push, do" energy), consider whether or not your exercise practice could be too intense, too frequent, lasting too long in duration or simply the wrong type of movement for your body in this season.
For me personally, it was a combination of all of the above that led me to swap the barbell and two-a-day practices for walks with my pup and time on a mat.
It was about a year after I started practicing Crossfit that I first recognized signs and symptoms that could be indicative of overtraining. I got headaches during workouts that lasted for hours. I felt hungry and fatigued constantly. I had a hard time sleeping at night and felt sore - all the time.
Then, not long after I decided to pull back a bit on my workouts, my husband received a job offer in a different state. When we decided to make the move, I ultimately put down the weights and picked up a mat. I was looking at the stress in my life as a whole and thought about where it made the most sense (and where it was the most possible) to reduce exertion.
So, instead of running laps around the gym, I enjoyed gentle strolls with my pup. Instead of seeing how quick I could complete a lift, I started seeing how still I could get in a pose. It wasn't that I didn't want to do any movement (again, movement is good for the body and soul!), it's that I wanted to make sure the movement I did was supporting my body and my overall goals: to feel as good as I possibly can.
Plus, I knew that what we need in any given moment can change based on the season of life we're in and so it's okay to switch things up whenever we need.
Looking back, I credit this swap in my exercise practice as the reason I've felt so good over the last year, even with a cross-country move, bigger to-do list at work and autoimmune disease. But I realized that the only way this was possible -- the only way I could actually make this decision to practice more gentle movement -- was because I had developed a new relationship with exercise and shifted my beliefs about what made an exercise practice "good".
Specifically, here are four exercise myths I had to dispel.
Again, this is where things with exercise get tricky. Exercise is supposed to be a good thing, right? It's something we want to do all the time, right? Traditionally, physical activity is helpful because it improves the body's response to stress. So that not only does exercise help us cope better with the triggers of daily life, but the physical act of moving the body can help relieve mental stress, too.
However, even though exercise is designed to be a positive stress, it's still a stressor. The amount and intensity of exercise, along with the recovery between activity, is important factor in whether certain exercises will help us feel better or worse. Plus, we have to take into consideration where we are in life, the condition of our health, what are goals are, etc.
I really truly believe an exercise practice is so much more personal than a quick search on Google often leads us to believe.
The truth is that my body thrives under different movements -- different types of movement, different durations, different intensities, etc. -- at different points in my life... and that's okay.
When incorporating new movements or when trying to heal, I had to realize “no pain, no gain” is not actually the goal. Sure, it's okay to mentally push myself, but I want to make sure I'm PHYSICALLY respecting my body and my boundaries.
With the headaches, fatigue, hunger, restlessness, etc., my body was letting me know that Crossfit was no longer the best choice for the season I was in (remember, season's change!). While I can mentally push myself when I think I might need it, I also need the discernment to understand when I physically have to pull back. It's not easy but it was really important for me to learn that I don't have to push myself to the brink of exhaustion to see benefits from physical activity. That I'm not only "doing it right" when I'm pushing as hard as I can.
This one's kind of similar. You see, before I started practicing restorative yoga, I loved to reach new goals in the gym. I did make it my mission to work myself just a liiiittle bit harder than the day before.
So much so that I almost needed to exercise (and push myself hard) to feel good about myself on any given day.
I felt "off" if I skipped the gym.
I made it a priority to work out on vacation.
I went for a run whenever I needed to feel better.
Now, don't get me wrong. I truly LOVE exercise. I love to move and I always have. But just because I enjoyed moving my body doesn't mean I had a healthy relationship to exercise. For me, it wasn't just that exercise helped combat anxiety or depressive thoughts. It was also that I needed exercise to feel okay. It wasn't just that I loved and craved movement because of how good it made me feel. It was also that I needed to work out because without it I didn't feel good about myself.
I struggled for a long while to let go of the "athlete mentality" of better, faster, strong is ALWAYS and ONLY better. Breaking this myth would require the realization that I was leaning on movement (and movement alone) to care for not just my physical body but also my emotional and mental health.
You see, it wasn't just that I was using exercise to care for myself physically. If I was, it would have been easier for me to see when I needed to rest, talk a walk instead of a run or lower the weight on the bar. Instead, it was that I was using exercise to check a box I thought I had to check for my physical health (eat well, check! workout, check!)... and also that I was using exercise to care for mental and emotional well-being.
It was how I cleared my head, how I felt the most grounded and how I processed any and all emotions.
While movement is a really great way to do this, I don't believe it's supposed to be the only way. (Especially if you've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or chronic illness.)
Half of the reason I was able to pull back during my Crossfit workouts, and then completely switch to walking and restorative yoga, was because I had found other ways to essentially "feel okay". I journal, practice EFT, meditate and take walks in nature. (You can read more about what I do and why I think this is so important here.)
The second half of the reason I was able to make such a drastic change (and see the benefits of that change, aka feel so much better!) was because I dispelled Myth #4.
I spent a LONG time being happy that I loved exercise... because I thought exercise would also help me lose weight and/or keep my shape. I really didn't put much thought to the real physical and mental benefits of exercise and instead focused a lot more of my attention on the amount of calories I thought a particular workout would burn.
It wasn't until many years later that I fully healed this relationship between weight and exercise and realized the true reason we're recommended to exercise. (To promote body adaptations that help us move more easily throughout the day so that we can better enjoy life.)
It's so important that we can start moving for our health and for our life (hint: to feel really, really good!) because THAT is actually what will help us feel, well, really really good. The only way to get to this place is to first untangle our beliefs. That's how we can cultivate a relationship with the body (and be willing to listen to what she's saying).
For me, I was being told restorative yoga was the way to go (for me and in that season). For you, it could be something entirely different! But the only way we can hear what's best for us (and actually want to listen) is if we first dispel some of our own exercise myths.
I'd love to know: Are there any commonly shared exercise principles that haven't worked for you? Any myths you've had to dispel yourself?