by Dr. Bill Rawls
In the early days, when fibromyalgia was just becoming a reality for me, I tried to deal with it by exercising through it. I thought that if I exercised hard and long enough, I could flush out whatever was wrong with my body.
Initially, it worked. In fact, the only time I felt relief from oppressive fatigue and flu-like symptoms was when I exercised. As my fibromyalgia worsened, however, my efforts started to backfire.
During a workout, I would reach a point where my energy rapidly diminished, only to be replaced by pain. I called it “hitting the wall.” Pushing hard enough to hit the wall guaranteed a penalty of pain and suffering for days or even a full week. And over time, the wall got higher and thicker. I had to back off until I was hardly exercising at all. It became obvious that exercise alone was not going to cure my ongoing misery.
I came to realize that the root of my problem was inflammation. Hidden microbes — which are the underlying cause of diseases like fibromyalgia and Lyme disease — use inflammatory pathways in the body to break down tissues. Their primary targets are joints, ligaments, and other tissues made of collagen. Pile on exercise, which creates friction on bones, ligaments, and joints, and inflammation intensifies.
In other words, I was creating my own vicious cycle: The more intensely I exercised, the worse the pain and inflammation I experienced.
Once I realized this, I knew my first step was to inhibit those hidden microbes, which I accomplished with the help of herbal therapy and some key lifestyle changes. That included practicing some qigong and yoga, once I felt physically up to trying a little movement again. Both of these gentle practices helped alleviate stress and tension — and thus further strengthen my immune system — so I could gradually start enjoying some of my favorite, more vigorous activities again, like kayaking and surfing.
Of course, everyone’s journey back to wellness is different. But I firmly believe that the right kind of exercise can help you get back to being you, whenever you feel ready to give it a try. Here are my best tips for easing into exercise with chronic illness like fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease, or chronic fatigue syndrome:
1. Start slowly.
Movement is key to recovery, so ease in as you can. Exercise generates endorphins, the important “feel-good” chemicals that stimulate immune function and speed your recovery. Increased blood flow during exercise also removes toxins from the body and normalizes hormones.
Even if the limit of your ability is walking around the living room three times, do it regularly until you can do more. Work up gradually. Need a goal to shoot for? Try aiming for a walk around the block each day.
2. Give Qigong a try.
Possibly the best exercise for recovery from chronic illness is the ancient Chinese art of Qigong (pronounced chi-gung). The slow gentle movements of Qigong increase endorphins without adding to your pain. Qigong exercises also enhance posture, alignment, and balance. If you’re new to the practice of Qigong, consider taking a class with an instructor. If you can’t afford a class, you can still learn the simple exercises from a book, DVD, or YouTube videos.
3. Sign up for a yoga or Pilates class.
With their emphasis on mind-body connection, both yoga and Pilates have restorative properties and reduce stress — as opposed to the high-impact or vigorous workouts you may be accustomed to at the gym. Regardless of your fitness level, flexibility, and stamina, yoga and Pilates can be adapted to meet your needs. Nowadays, classes are widely available in most every community.
If your resources allow, private lessons are worth considering for targeting specific concerns such as muscle stiffness and back pain. Yoga and Pilates stretch and strengthen your body, improve posture, and encourage blood flow to areas of the body where flow can be restricted, such as the spine. Yoga and Pilates are also a great way to generate endorphins.
4. Don’t overdo it.
Yes, exercise is beneficial — but it is just as important that you don’t overtax your body. Exercise as long as it feels good to you. If it ever results in a next-day “hangover” with pain and increased fatigue, you’ve pushed yourself too far, and you’ll need to allow yourself time to recover. When you begin again, decrease the level of intensity. Like hitting a wall, aggressive exercise can set you back a week or more. Learn your limits, and gradually increase them as the healing process allows.
5. Bounce back.
A rebounder is a small personal trampoline. If doing any sort of exercise is a challenge, a rebounder provides a safe and low-impact way to ease back in. Simply bouncing for 10-20 minutes a few times a day gets your blood flowing, strengthens the autonomic nervous system, and increases lymphatic flow to support your body’s natural detoxification processes.
6. Count your steps.
To track how many steps you take each day — one of the best tools to use is a pedometer. With a pedometer, you can measure small, incremental changes in your physical activity, which can help you exercise without pushing yourself too hard.
You can get a wearable pedometer at an athletic store or online, or use an app on your smartphone. Initially, just record your baseline. As your health improves, try to increase daily steps. Your ultimate goal is 10,000 steps each day.
7. Work with a pro.
As your level of physical activity increases, you may find benefit from working with a personal trainer. A good personal trainer can help you reach a higher level of physical ability without risking injury. When looking for a trainer, make sure you ask around and find someone who is familiar with issues like fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
8. Get outside.
Whenever weather allows, do something active outside. Strive for an hour each day. It’s great for elevating your vitamin D levels and your outlook on life!
From time to time, kick off your shoes and walk barefoot in the grass or sand. Direct contact with the ground allows for the equalization of electrons between the body and the natural background, a process known as grounding. Grounding is one of the many tools nature has provided us to reset our nervous systems and restore our bodies.
9. Add some resistance.
Once your recovery is well underway, you might consider adding some resistance training to your routine. During resistance training, repetitions with light free weights systematically work the various muscle groups of the body with a goal of increasing muscle tone and physical strength. However, since resistance training can kick up inflammation, resist the urge to lift too much weight too soon.
10. Make it fun.
As your health improves, embracing a new, athletic activity can be very rewarding and enjoyable. But where should you start?
While it might be tempting to pick up with your fitness routine right where you left off, it’s a better idea to pace yourself, so you work well within your body’s energy reserves. Ideally, pick a low-intensity activity such as biking, hiking, golf, or kayaking.
Ultimately, exercise should be a pleasurable part of your recovery, so if you’re not enjoying the activity, or the movement is causing any discomfort, change things up and take breaks as needed. Finally, stay positive: You might not yet be physically capable of what you once were, but you’ll make your way back if you stay diligent and, most importantly, are patient with yourself.