Where there has been significant injury, significant recovery is required. When living with a disease or condition that affects your long-term ability to engage in physical activity, exercise can be a double-edged sword. It releases endorphins that help you feel good, a welcome feeling when the frustration of physical limitations is also present. Exercise also has many other health benefits for your body: building muscle tissue, increasing your heart and lung’s capacity to work, and helping you keep brain plasticity now, and later in life.
However, all those benefits are for naught if doing a workout sets you back each time you do it. If you’re dealing with a long-term illness, disease, or injury, exercising can become not-so-wonderful if it makes you hurt worse. Racking up days of ‘no movement’ on the couch isn’t what you’d hope for when you’re implementing an exercise or movement program.
When you have health restrictions, you may also start feeling frustrated at what your body can’t do, instead of focusing on what it can do. Positive thinking is a highly beneficial tactic to combat this, so it’s worth your while to keep it in your arsenal of tools and keep the blade sharp.
So, what’s to be done? How do you include exercise in your life when you also have a long-term physical setback?
Become a ruthless detective
There are, quite literally, thousands of ways to bring exercise into your life. Within the broader categories of exercise there are incredible amounts of sub-categories you can discover and determine if they suit you. Within each sub-category are vast numbers of styles, methods, and coaches for that exercise type.
The trick is to avoid analysis paralysis with the incredible amount of choices, and instead see the cornucopia of choices you have in front of you. Even if you feel like every option is off the table because your body is currently on strict restrictions, there will be an exercise program or movement-style that suits you, you just have to look without judgement.
“Without judgement” is the tricky part. No judgement of yourself that you’re not doing the activity you loved so much before but just isn’t working for you now. And no judgement of other forms of movement and exercise that before you might have paid no attention to.
Your landscape is different now than it was before. Be open and willing to explore alternatives for your exercise practice. If you loved running prior to your long-term setback, and every time you try running now, you hurt, are on the couch for days, and are getting re-injured or seeing a flare-up of your condition, the message is clear – you just have to hear it and accept it.
Just because you remove running as an option for exercise now doesn’t mean its off the table forever. It might be, but you won’t know for some time anyways, so a better alternative is to start exploring other options for getting healthy movement into your life.
One simple way to start your detective work is to type your condition or illness into a search engine with the words “+ exercise”. You will find practitioners and other people who have shared online info about what they are doing, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked; and with your smart detective mind, you’ll sort through what you find, discarding what’s not helpful and exploring further anything that has some potential for you.
You may find a forum where people like you are discussing the type of exercise they’re doing, which you can then do a search for to learn more about, and with that information, can decide if this could be something worth trying for yourself. You might be able to find all the info you need to get started free online, or you might need to buy a few books, or you may stumble on a coach that teaches the method you want to try and you can decide to link up with them.
Whether it’s barbell-training, bodyweight training, yoga, cycling, tai chi, various martial arts, dance class, swimming, or any other movement-based activity you can think of, there are people who are finding great joy in it, and you could be one of them too.
Determine your dosage
Exercising isn’t an all or nothing game. Perhaps you’re not ready to throw out your old exercise method entirely just yet.
If the current workout you’re doing is crippling you, it might not be that the movements in the program aren’t well-suited for you. Consider that it might simply be the volume of movements or the timing that isn’t working for where you stand at this time.
If the program you’d like to do has a set schedule of X number of workouts per week, and attempting that puts you back on the couch, hurt, and in pain, consider changing the volume and timing to something more suitable for you before you throw the program out entirely.
It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do a program as prescribed. Even high-level athletes adapt a program to their own needs. They look at necessary programming that needs to get done, and then create a template that suits them best.
None of us are in the same place, coming from the same location, or heading the same direction.
If your workout buddy Mike thrives on longer duration workouts spread out through a week, so that he has full rest days in between workouts, but you get crushed from that format, then what Mike is doing might be best for him, but it’s not best for you. You might do better with shorter duration workouts but that happen with greater frequency and less rest days.
Here are two ways you can alter your current workout to try out how it might still be able to work for you:
1. Segment the program:
If a program has a full-body workout that you are to do 2-3 times per week, you could instead break up the full-body workout into segments, and work one segment per day, working your way through them all over the course of a week. You may get one full-body workout complete instead of the two to three recommended by the program, but, one is better than none, and ‘none’ is what you get every time you land on the couch because your workout broke you.
Here are 3 ways you can play with the segmentation of your workout program:
- Do you do better doing the full-body workout as one go but then taking the next 1-2 days to do other, lighter, more recovery-based things?
- Do you do better doing a smaller segment of the full-body program and doing that consistently each day?
- Do you do better taking your segment and breaking it up even further to be a ‘morning’ and an ‘evening’ segment where you complete the segment in one day, but not all in one go?
After you sort out your segmenting, sort out part 2: the type and nature of rest days.
2. Evaluate the timing of rest days:
Consider these suggestions and questions to find the type and nature of rest days that will work best for you.
- Do you do better having two exercise days in a row to start the week, and then take a rest day before you do two more exercise days?
- Do you do better having an exercise day followed by a rest day, repeating that schedule throughout the week?
- Do you do better incorporating tai chi or yoga on a rest day or do you do well taking a full rest, doing no real movement of any kind?
- Do you do better when you get extra sleep, eat extra food, and or use a sauna on your rest days?
Enjoy the journey, not just the outcome
After you’ve done your detective work, and you’ve figured out a good dosage for yourself, take a deep breath and relax into the journey. It’s an old maxim, but its the truth: it’s about the journey, not the destination.
What you want to get out of exercise is to feel good, get better, and have fun. ‘Getting better’ may be incremental and feel slow to you as you work exercise into your life alongside your long-term condition, but the alternative is bleak. You’d much rather move your ball forward small notches regularly than have the ball rolling back on you, smashing you every time you try to push it.
Learn to enjoy the act of slowly pushing your ball forward. Find things about your body and its ability to push the ball forward, whatever that may be, that motivate you to keep the journey going.
What have you found helpful as you work to find the right exercise routine for your long-term health restrictions? Tell us in the comments.
Kate Galliett is the creator of Fit for Real Life where she brings together body, mind, and movement to help people become highly-charged and fit for real life. She coaches clients in-person, online, and through her foundational strength & mobility program, The Unbreakable Body. She holds a BS in Exercise Science and has worked as a fitness professional for 12 years. Her secret ingredient is always smoked paprika.
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