When Fitness Meets Autoimmune Disease

As I laced my Nikes this morning to get in some cardio, I had to laugh as I wondered to myself, “Am I the only one who breaks a sweat getting ready for exercise?” Between squeezing into running pants and forcing a sports bra on, sometimes I feel like just getting ready for exercise is the real workout.

Then I wondered how many times I will have to start over with my exercise routine. My goal is to get in 5 – 6 days of exercise a week. But, with menieres disease, heart and marrow/blood problems coupled with additional autoimmune issues, I am often thrown off course.

It’s frustrating.

Most recently, I’d been back on track for about a month before I got smacked down – by Zika. Yeah. You read that right. I wasn’t completely symptom free until yesterday, and so today I crawled back into my gym clothes and said a prayer to the exercise gods to protect me for at least 6 more weeks before I have to take another two week hiatus.

And that’s how it has always been for me. My exercise/fitness journey has been a constant, uphill, getting back in the saddle experience.

Let’s go back a few years. Until about 2005, I was a very normal sized person. Not underweight, not overweight. Completely normal. Then, towards the end of my junior year of high school all my health issues came to a head (for the first time). I weighed just under 140 lbs (at 5’7″) and by the end of my senior year I was pushing 180. Somehow, I managed to gain 40 lbs in a single year.

Turns out, a lot of that was water retention thanks to health complications (thanks, body. Thanks, a lot) but as a 17 year old girl, I just felt…unhealthy. In a way, it’s a good thing I ballooned like that, because it was a hard slap in the face and inspired me to find a workout buddy and to figure out where exercise would have a place in my life. I was facing a fork in the road and could decide to take the easy route and succumb to illness and steadily gain weight each year and blame my body for it, or I could take the harder path and fight back to being a healthier me, no excuses.

Now, most people lose weight at an average of 2 lbs a week. I, being the special girl I am, am lucky to see about .5 lb a week of weight loss (when active, of course). Between 2006 and 2008, I lost 30 lbs. That’s right, folks. It took me two years to lose 30 lbs. Two long years, but I did it. Between 2008 – 2009, I lost another 10 lbs. So, by 2010 I was looking svelt at about 139 lbs.

While still battling all the health issues, I hit a stride, found my way around a nutritious and balanced diet (with the help of doctors, I need various vitamin shots, supplements, due to malabsorption) and was able to maintain my weight despite the health hiccups.

And then I found myself in the full swing of an abusive relationship. My activity levels were the same (if not more, because my new job required me to walk and stand 8 hours a day) and my diet was more balanced than ever. Yet, in the two years we spent living together, I managed to gain twenty pounds. 20 lbs. TWENTY. -_-  Years of hard work, flushed down the drain and swallowed by stress and anxiety.

My partner would weigh me, compare me to other women, show me videos and pictures of vegan fitness models and athletes, and aspired to have a very low weight despite his height – something which he vocalized wanting for me as well.

People laugh when you say that stress and anxiety makes you sick. It’s true. With him, I was sicker than ever. My heart problems were constant, I was throwing up often (once, I threw up every day for thirty days. How do I know this? Because he kept a tally on a calendar, along with every time I said I had a head ache), and my body wanted to quit. The amount of fatigue and constant illness I experienced in those years were unlike anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. But I kept going. I kept moving…but it wasn’t for me, and my body knew it.

The week I left him, I lost 8 lbs without trying. Monumental weight loss for someone who spends a year trying to lose 15.

I realize I’m all over the map here. Am I talking about illness and fitness or abusive narcissists? Don’t worry. Illness and fitness is the topic and I’m circling back to it.

Since 2006, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a person with health issues as well as physically active. For me, it means taking more breaks. With a BP of 80/60 it can be alarming when, in the first 5 minutes of exercise, my heart is racing at nearly 200 bpm. So I go a littler slower, I take a longer warm up, I wear a heart rate monitor, and I take longer breaks than someone with a completely healthy heart.

And that’s okay.

I have learned to be reasonable with myself. It’s okay not to be able to do it all. It’s okay to modify exercises. I have been working with BBG guides for 9 months and have had to start over 4 times and I constantly modify the moves to stay safe, and because I know my body. I push myself, but I don’t put myself in danger.

If I didn’t sleep the night before, I do light exercise (walking/yoga).
If I’m having palpitations, I wait for them to stop.
If I’m nauseated, dizzy, or running a fever, then I wait a day.

Is it ideal? Absolutely not! Do I want to work out and work hard every single day without being taken down by my own body? Definitely.

But that isn’t my reality. My reality is that, 1 out of 4 weeks I am forced to rest (or left with walking as my only exercise option). Sometimes, it’s longer. Sometimes, I am gifted by the exercise gods with 6 – 8 weeks of undisturbed fitness routine.

I don’t really know why I felt the need to share all of this. I think it’s because I know I’m not alone here. I know that there are others out there trying to figure out where and how to make health and exercise happen in their lives, whether they struggle with health problems or not. I know there are people who look at the scale and want to scream because they did the work but their body only wants to let the weight go .25 lbs at a time.

I’m telling you – don’t give up. Accept the little victories. Be amazed by what your body can do and stop blaming it for the things it can’t. It makes all the difference.

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