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With Chronic Illness, Exercise Isn't Always the Answer — Sometimes, It's the Problem

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I have a few autoimmune diseases, and the most problematic right now is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I’m also about six weeks out from a total laparoscopic hysterectomy via Da Vinci robot. I have been released by my surgeon to resume normal activities next week, to include exercise, as I feel up to it.

Since I had the hysterectomy as a cure for fibroids and adenomyosis (and she excised endometriosis while she was in there), I have been feeling immeasurably better as far as daily debilitating pelvic pain. I was thrilled when my doctor said I should be able to run and work out again. I used to run 20 miles a week and I loved how I felt when I was running and I loved being strong from my hours logged in the weight room.

But then in the past few days, I’ve been struggling with a Hashimoto’s flare and now I don’t know if excercise is the right answer any more.

Hashimoto’s can sometimes present with adrenal fatigue, which can be interpreted to mean that your body has worked too hard for too long and simply can’t handle stress anymore, and although exercise is supposed to be good for us, it is certainly stressful on the body. But Hashimoto’s by itself can make it incredibly difficult to follow a workout routine too. Anything can trigger a flare. Work stress, problems in your personal life, rain, a warm or cold front. Or just because. There isn’t always a trigger. Also, a flare will be different for everyone. For me, it’s like having a hangover and the flu with fever at the same time — widespread aches and pains and difficulty concentrating, along with overwhelming fatigue. Getting through a work day is challenging, much less trying to break a sweat at Zumba or in the weight room.

So the chronically ill population, by and large, wants to exercise. We understand that exercise is a healthy habit and we want to be able to take part in this. But we can’t. Not all the time. We may be able to do a little bit at a time on a good day, and some of us have found success in having a regular routine. Most of the time, it’s yoga, hiking, walking. Low impact activities that get us moving but don’t hurt while doing it and don’t exacerbate pain afterwards. I have met a few athletes who have “overcome” Hashimoto’s and do distance runs or CrossFit. That’s great for them. I’m sincerely happy they can do so much. But my disease isn’t managed well enough yet to be able to take on that level of exertion.

So next week, when I’m able to resume normal activities, I’m going to try to exercise. It’s scary. It’s exciting. It sounds like so much fun and so terrible. I have no idea how my body will respond but I have to at least try. My hope is that I will find a balance that helps me be stronger, strong enough to defeat Hashimoto’s but not so demanding that I live in a constant flare.

To my friends and other supporters of chronic illness fighters: Exercise, unfortunately, isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it’s the problem. It affects everyone differently, so if your friend with fibromyalgia or Hashimoto’s or lupus or arthritis doesn’t work out regularly, trust that s/he wants to be able to. But if we try, we may not be able to predict how our body is going to react. Exercise did not cause this disease, exercise will not cure this disease, and exercise will often make our lives a lot harder because the pain is so much worse when we stress our bodies out.

I haven’t figured out exactly what my approach is going to be yet, but I’m going to give it a reasonable attempt until it’s apparent that it’s good for me or it’s not. Just knowing that I’m going to try is making me feel anxious and happy and overwhelmed but really excited. I’m going to really give it my best shot, but I have to be really careful about going overboard.

Wish me luck.

Getty photo by littlehenrabi

Originally published: September 8, 2018
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