I Like to Move It Move It : Excerising with Autoimmune Disease

Or, at least I used to.

Ok, I still do, but I’m figuring out how to fully enjoy exercise without paying the price for it with deep, deep fatigue and excessive muscle and joint soreness.

Exercise is a complicated topic for me. It’s layered with all the associations to weight management, the goal to burn maximum calories, and the messages of “no pain no gain,” “go hard or go home” and the pursuit of that “runner’s high.”

I was never much of a runner, but I sure did love me a Body Combat class. Or Body Step. Or Body Pump. I was a fitness class fanatic, sometimes doing multiple classes back to back, and always giving them my all. I would leave those classes a sopping wet puddle of goo, but a smiling one. I never felt like I had had a good workout unless I had pushed myself as hard as I could and left feeling that “buzz” where your body is tired, but your mind and spirit just feel awake!

But sometime in the last… 5 years or so?… something changed. I found that I was feeling more and more tired by my workouts. I couldn’t go as long or as hard as I used to. And my recovery time was becoming longer and longer. Suddenly, lifting even light weights would leave me excessively sore and take 4 or 5 days to fully resolve. If I did a long and/or hard workout, I found I needed a nap that day, and more sleep for the next couple of days.

It was frustrating and demoralizing. Afterall, as someone who came from a history of obesity, I had worked hard to earn my fitness and I was proud of it. I still struggle to accept that I really cannot do what I used to do, and maybe never will again.

But, what I am starting to see glimpses of is that health supportive activity does not need to be balls to the wall each and every time (or perhaps ever). That moderate intensity, moderate duration, moderate frequency workouts CAN produce fitness. It doesn’t HAVE to exhaust me to be good for me. Well, in reality, if it does exhaust me, it is NOT good for me.

So, why did things change?

Hashimoto’s is a disease that results in physical damage to the tissues of the thyroid gland. This gland produces the hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic processes. Many people mistake the word “metabolism” to mean “how many calories you burn.” This is partially true. But actually, “how many calories you burn” is the result of all the processes your body has to perform just to stay alive. It involves tissue repair and building, immune system functions, reproductive functions, digestion, detoxification, cognition and brain health, moods, physical movement, etc etc etc.

With Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, all metabolic processes S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N. This results in the symptoms that Hashimoto’s sufferers experience. They are many and varied because your thyroid and hormones affect every single function of your body. There are symptoms common across most Hashimoto’s sufferers (body temperature regulation, recovery from injury or illness, weight gain, mood impacts), and some that are more pronounced in some people and less in others.

Why does exercise result in flare-ups?

There are a couple of primary reasons that many Hashimoto’s sufferers experience some degree of exercise intolerance.

First, stress is a confounding factor that exacerbates all symptoms. It adds a load that the body must deal with when it is already often struggling. And, what is exercise? It is quite literally the addition of stress in a physical form. It creates wear and tear on the joint and muscle tissues. When done with the right level of intensity – and supported by the right nutrition – the body works to rebuild those tissues, thereby creating stronger muscles that can do more. However, in a person with a compromised thyroid gland whose metabolic processes are not optimal, the time to recover from the stress of exercise is impacted. It becomes difficult to build muscle and the added load to the body to recover from it creates deep fatigue.

Secondly, exercise creates inflammation in the body. Most people can handle that, but with autoimmune disease, the body is already struggling to deal with higher levels of inflammation.

So, what is the answer? Do we just need to stop exercising?

Heck no! This is the worst thing you can do. That would allow the muscles to atrophy more. There are many, many benefits that come from exercise, even for those with AI disease.

The key is to do the RIGHT exercise. And the right exercise is different for everyone. The right exercise for you is the exercise that allows you to feel good immediately after, and in the 24-48 hours following.

There are 3 key factors that we can control to help us find the right exercise for ourselves:

  1. Intensity.
  2. Duration.
  3. Frequency.

It’s taken me the last 18 months to start to accept that I truly should not push myself like I used to and that my goal should not be to be able to do that again someday. My goal is to find what intensity, duration and frequency of exercise makes me feel good now and stay attuned to my body’s signals to adjust from day to day or month to month. Afterall, what works well for me now might feel like too much if I’m going through a period of higher emotional or mental stress, or other physical stress like recovering from an illness. Or, maybe I’ll find at some point that things are going more easily for me in some ways, and I find I can do a little more. It all requires that I really pay attention to how my body feels and commit to taking care of myself in the best way that I can.

Right now, what this looks like for me is that I can manage to do a 20-30 minute workout, 3-4 times a week, at a level that I would say is about a 5-6 out of 10 on the intensity scale. I can push myself a little bit harder for short bursts, and I can get a moderate sweat going.

And you know what? It’s good! I feel challenged, and on those days when I can do a little more than before, I feel accomplished. But mainly, I try to stay in the moment, enjoy the movement and the music and don’t worry too much about what I used to be able to do or what I may or may not do tomorrow.

Resources

For those who are having a hard time finding what works, there are two programs I’m aware of that could offer some help in figuring out YOUR right exercise approach.

First is Autoimmune Strong. This program was developed by a personal trainer, Andrea Wool, who healed herself through finding her right exercise approach. She baby stepped it all the way and has developed a program that she now shares and coaches others to help them rebuild too. Andrea offers kind, caring and personal feedback through her active Facebook community as well as small group coaching. Click the link above to find out more about this program. I also would like to share an article that Andrea wrote that talks more about exercise intolerance: What do you do when your exercise routine isn’t working for you?

The second program is called Thyroid Strong by Dr Emily Kiberd. This one is new to me, so I admit that I’m not personally familiar with the program, but I wanted to include it here as another resource that might work for some of you. I will be checking out the free Masterclass webinar they offer!

Lastly, I’m going to add a plug for an online video streaming service that I have come upon in the last couple of months. While it’s not specifically geared toward folks with autoimmune disease, what I love about it is it has a VAST range of videos that are searchable by length (from as short as 10 min to as long as 50 minutes), by type (including strength, cardio, dance, kickboxing, barre, abs/core, yoga and flexibility), and by level (beginner, intermediate, advanced). They’ve also been curated into programmed calendars such as “Beginner to Buff” or “Fit over 40.” I love this resource because of the flexibility to create my own program depending on what I feel up for on any given day, and there is so much to choose from that I never get bored. Not only that, but the music in the videos is actually pretty good and motivating (something often lacking in many other programs). Plus, there is an active, supportive Facebook community as well.

If you want to check it out, go to GHUTV (Get Health You TV).

Your turn

Have you struggled with exercise intolerance? What’s your story? Have you found a program that works for you? What tips and advice can you share with others who are finding their right exercise approach? Post in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

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