Friday, April 25, 2014

Fitness Friday

I'm really excited to be participating in the WEGO Health Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge.  I'm hoping that the challenge factor will motivate me to write more often (every day this month, in fact!), and that that will develop into a habit of writing regularly after the month is over.  More importantly, I'm hoping that by sharing my experiences, thoughts, and insights about living with chronic and invisible illnesses, I'll be able to bring comfort to someone struggling with the same issues.
*Note - I'll be including this introductory paragraph at the beginning of every post, so that anyone who's checking in for the first time will have that background info.  If you come back another day (and I hope you do), you can skip this part and jump straight to the day's post, below!

Today's assignment: Fitness Friday.  What do you do to stay fit? Tell us about your efforts in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Fitness Friday ... yeesh!
What do I do to stay fit?  Double yeesh!
My efforts - ok, that part I can write about.

As I've mentioned (quite a few times) before, the combination of underactive thyroid, severe pain and fatigue, and two and a half years on steroids has led me to gain a tremendous amount of weight.  The idea of writing about how I stay fit feels almost like a sick joke: I've never been further from fit in my life. Still, I do the best I can, and have to believe that if I didn't, things would be even worse.

In some ways, staying fit (or as close to it as possible) with a chronic illness involves the same components as it does for anyone else.  Of course there are adjustments that must be made for each aspect, but it comes down to eating right, moving when possible, and finding some way to ease the mind along the way (yes, mental/emotional fitness is just as important as physical).  With that in mind, I offer my experience and advice on each aspect.

Eating right. 
There's no doubt, it can be depressing to live with pain on a daily basis.  Even the most optimistic and cheerful of us can have the occasional pity party (and boy, do we have good food at those parties!).  What's most important is to allow for those moments, accept them without guilt, and move on from them.  An occasional overindulgence in ice cream or Cheetos won't ruin our lives.  What becomes problematic is when we get stuck in that rut: when we feel guilty about diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry's, and ease the guilt by adding a bag or two of chips.  That can easily become a cycle that does as much damage to our emotional state as it does to our waistline (not to mention all the additional health problems that go along with it).

The reality is that it's what we do most of the time that makes a difference, not what we do once in a while.  Over the years, what I've done (most of the time) has changed quite a bit.  I've gone from eating nearly nothing to eating nearly everything in sight, to counting points to stay somewhere in between.  How much we eat is definitely still very important, but what we choose can be even more so.  What I learned a few years ago (what should be common sense, what we all know but seldom follow) is that the closer to its natural state a food is, the better it is for us.  Since then, I've switched from processed/refined foods to whole grains (the browns instead of the whites).  I've eliminated MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners, and cut most artificial preservatives and chemical ingredients.  Basically, I want to be able to pronounce all the ingredients, and understand what they are.  I'm a vegetarian, and choose organic, non-hormone treated, and non-GMO foods whenever possible.  When I first made these changes (about 4-5 years ago), I felt a big difference.  I can't credit it all to the food, as I was also getting a number of other treatments at the time, but I started to feel more energy and less pain, and though it wasn't the main focus, I lost about 30lbs along the way.  Unfortunately, I've had additional health problems since then, but I do my best to maintain the healthy eating habits.  I can only imagine how much worse I would feel if I went back to my old ways of eating.  Honestly, I don't even want to - I prefer the taste of healthy food, and when I look at some of what I used to eat, it doesn't even look like food to me anymore.

Moving when possible.
This is the most frustrating part of trying to stay fit while living with a chronic illness.  Doctors tell us that exercise can help alleviate some symptoms, relieve stress, and lose weight.  Unfortunately, most of the time we are in too much pain to exercise.  As with the pity party above, what I believe is most important here is to recognize and accept both our abilities and our limitations.  We cannot allow ourselves to feel guilty about not exercising when we just can't do it.  That said, we've got to make the effort to do something when we can.

The type of exercise may be limited based on our illnesses, but there is always something we can do.  It may be a matter of trial and error to see what works best, but we have to keep trying until we find what works.  Because of the arthritis, I cannot do any impact activities - that means no running, no jumping ... it eliminates most of the exercise videos I've used for years.  My doctor has encouraged me to get to a pool - either swimming or water aerobics would be great exercise without the impact on my joints.  I did try that - I bought a membership to the local pool, but with my work schedule, I was hardly ever able to make it there.  I'd had a gym membership, but for the same reason, hardly ever went.  I tried doing yoga at home, but nearly all of the weight-bearing positions hurt too much.  Walking seemed simple enough, but the weather gets in the way all too often: too hot, too cold, rain, snow - all reasons not to spend time outside, especially with a compromised immune system.  Though it may seem like I was just making excuses, the truth is I was getting more and more frustrated.  I wanted to exercise, but every time I tried, I hit a wall.  Eventually, I decided to buy a (relatively inexpensive) elliptical machine.  It's one of the few no-impact activities that I can do, and I figured that since it was in my home, it would be easier.  Even a 20 minute workout at the gym can take over an hour including travel and changing time, but it would only be 20 minutes if at home, and I wouldn't have to fit it in based on fitness center hours.  Honestly, I haven't been able to get on the machine anywhere near as often as I'd like.  I've been in a lot of pain lately, I've been sick, I've been sleep deprived ... but I look at the machine and know that when I am able to, I will get back on it.  I may start with only 5-10 minutes, but it's a start.  And after a period (like now) when I can't do it at all, I'll start again.  And again.  The important thing is this: we may have to stop from time to time ... and that's ok.  The important thing is that we never stop starting again.

Ease the mind.
Though it may seem like a side-note, this is really the most important part of keeping fit.  Life is stressful enough for healthy people; add in the struggles, the fears, and the disappointments of chronic illness, and it's that much more important to find balance, to ease the mind.  While a positive outlook is not enough to cure an autoimmune disease (as some suggest), it does help.  It is far too easy to fall into a deep depression when diagnosed with a chronic illness: not only is there pain and fatigue on a daily basis, but the prospect of disfigurement and disability, the loss of friends and jobs, and the constant judgement by people because we don't look as sick as we feel.  It is therefore that much more important to find a way to keep us from that deep black hole.  There are many different ways to create that balance; it's important to find what's right for you.  In fact, it's best to find a few options, as on any given day, one may be more effective than another. 

Meditation can be very difficult to start, especially for someone who is used to being an overachiever.  It is hard to just slow down, breathe, and concentrate on what is within.  That said, it can offer a way to reach inside to explore subconscious thoughts, get closer to a higher power, or find an answer to an ongoing challenge.  Sometimes, it is just the moment of peace that we need to balance the chaos of the rest of the day.

Spending time with friends can be an easy way to remember the joy in life and get some laughs.  At times, it feels more natural to withdraw when we are in too much pain to go out or we don't want to burden anyone with our problems.  We may even discover that some people we thought were friends fade away in our times of need ... but the true friends stick around.  True friends care for us and want to be there when we need them.  What we need to do ... what may be hard to do but is well worth it ... is let them.

Volunteering can be an incredible pick-me-up.  There is nothing more rewarding than helping someone else.  Regardless of our ability level, there is always something we can do.  From making phone calls and sending emails to giving someone a ride to a treatment to joining an event planning committee, these activities not only help others through whatever cause we choose, but they help us, too.  Volunteering gives us a connection, a purpose, a sense of self worth.

Gotta love Patch Adams!
Laughter is the best medicine, and it's easy enough to come by.  Whether going out to a comedy club or vegging out at home with Netflix, laughing releases endorphins, the "feel-good" hormone.  Though it won't take away all of our pain, it can surely offer a great distraction for a couple of hours.

Writing has always been one of my best ways to ease the mind.  Whether writing for myself or for a public forum such as this, it allows me to explore my feelings - to literally get the negative thoughts out of my head and onto the paper (or screen), and to work my way through to a resolution.  If writing is not your thing, any of the arts can provide a creative outlet for expression.

Overall, it doesn't matter what we do to stay fit; what matters is that we do something.  We can find a way to eat better.  We can find a way to move, when we can.  We can find a way to ease our minds of the stress of living with a chronic illness.  Most of all, we can - and must - forgive ourselves for the days when we just can't do any of that.  By forgiving ourselves today, we give ourselves the gift of a better tomorrow.

**If you like what you read, tell a friend.  In fact, tell me, too - post a comment below!  If you don't ... well ... I'm all for honesty, but ... please be gentle!