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5 Tips for Being Active Again When Your Health Has Kept You Sidelined

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I have to confess something: I hate exercise. Runner’s high? Never got it. Endorphins? Mine are defective, apparently. I just don’t like any form of traditional exercise – but I do like certain “active” things, and I would say our definition of exercise can be a bit narrow. If you’ve ever spring cleaned your house, you know that it is definitely exercise.

When you have a chronic condition that has limited your ability to exercise (whether you loved it, or are more like me), trying to get back into it can be daunting and terrifying. I have a heart condition that causes the rate to rise rapidly from very little exertion — inappropriate sinus tachycardia. Walking to the mailbox it would be well over 100 bpm – and up a flight of stairs, it could be in the 140s. Those are numbers you see when people are working out hard, not casually walking to the mailbox. So for a decade, I could do very little without feeling like I was having a heart attack. Vacuuming one room left me gasping and collapsed on the couch. Grocery shopping was miserable, pushing a basket around and waking forever and then carrying it all – I got home with a heart rate over 150 every time. It was torturous. I couldn’t do things I enjoyed like gardening or dancing.

When I ended up in a cardiologist’s office for other reasons, his thoroughness and perceptiveness led him to discover that I had an actual condition that was causing all the misery which I had written off for so long. It wasn’t “all in my head” as I had been led to believe by a previous doctor. It was a chronic condition I would have for life. Luckily there were treatment options, and it greatly restored my functionality and ability to live life “normally.”

Now that I am stable and being treated, and have been for several years, I’m ready to take the next step (I already garden, clean, shop, and do many things I previously couldn’t) – I’m ready to get back into dancing as a fun active hobby I can do at home. But being sidelined for so long, a million thoughts and concerns ran through my head. Could I, should I, will I make things worse, will I be unable to do it – I didn’t know what to think. Luckily a good friend and former professional dancer encouraged me to just give it a go at my own pace and in my own way.

These are some of the most important things I’ve learned while trying to be active again after my chronic illness diagnosis.

1. Do What You Enjoy, Even If It’s “Silly.”

I was a cheerleader/dancer most of my life – and that was the only “exercise” I did. I tried running, religiously five times a week for a year, and despised it every moment of every time. I tried gyms, treadmills, weights, yoga, whatever – I tried and hated it all. The bottom line is I hate working out. But I love dancing. So I joined an online program where a former professional cheerleader teaches you weekly dances, step by step, that literally anyone can do – and it is so fun. (VIBExMCB) I know I look like an awkward turtle in my living room trying (I’m 35 and long past my dancing prime), but it’s still fun! I can go watch the videos whenever, take my time, and just enjoy being even a little bit active again. Find what you enjoy and begin there.

2. Take a Break Before You Actually Need To

I’m a professional burnout master. I will push myself to the point of collapse and then act like I couldn’t see it coming. So now I take a break (even a short one) when I still feel fine. Long before I feel like I need to. Not only does it keep me from pushing myself to far too hard, but it also makes the activity more enjoyable and less of a punishment. I’m much less likely to want to keep being active if it’s miserable every time! Force yourself to stop while you still feel well, rather than waiting until you have no choice but to stop.

3. Cut Your Efforts and Expectations in Half to Start

Whatever you think you’ll be able to manage – do half. Half the weights, half the distance, half the speed, half as long…just cut it in half. Trust me, trying to do “the most you can” is a recipe for feeling bad – both physically and psychologically. Do half of what you think you can, and you’ll be able to be excited that you accomplished it, and won’t have to pay the price of doing a wee bit too much.

4. You Define What Being Active Means for You

Maybe hitting up the gym for an hour is something you’re ready to take on – maybe 10 minutes of gardening feels like quite the workout (it is!) – but only you can define what feels like the right type and amount of activity. Being active is defined differently for every single person – so find what is right for you and only you.

5. You’re Not a Failure If You Take Time Off

Being physically active is one of those things we tend to feel guilty about if we miss a day or haven’t done it in a while. But there is no reason to feel guilty, because you haven’t done anything wrong. Taking time off, for whatever reason, is perfectly fine — and sometimes very important. Being mean to yourself doesn’t help your motivation or make you feel good about giving it a try. Take time off when you feel like you should, and don’t beat yourself up about it.

Getty image by Mario Guti.

Originally published: August 16, 2022
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