How to Start an Exercise Regime When You’re Chronic, on Your Own, And Not Give up

If you suffer from any sort of chronic problem, the thought of exercise is the last thing you’d ever want to attempt. How could I ever consider signing up for the Bluenose Marathon if last night’s sleep caused one’s neck to stop being able to turn left?

I’ve been there.

Here’s the thing. Exercise has been proven time and time again to help both mental and physical health.

Where does one start? I know one major barrier is knowing what exercises won’t cause further damage if the issue is chronic pain. The wait times for physiotherapists is high in this province, and I’ll be honest: they baby the patients, not challenging them to improve. Private can add up rather quickly.

Here’s some things I’ve learned to keep me going, and how I went from barely moving from my couch to the fridge to light jogging around 5K.

Looks are a perk, not a goal.
This should be said at the very start. Never base your exercise regime solely on aesthetics. I promise you this: the body changes over a long period of time, and will not change where/when you want. Spot training is a myth, and we all store fat differently. One usually becomes bulkier before a sudden drop of weight or inches, so if you’re basing what you’re doing for a number on a scale, change your priority. Looks will come as a reward for making healthy changes.

Don’t go out and buy the most expensive workout clothes when things bought at Value Village (second hand) will do just fine. Those people you see at the gym or outside who look amazing? They started somewhere too, they’ve been where you’ve been. Thing is, they actually may not be a very healthy person. Comparing yourself only deflates motivation. If you keep at it, why pay hundreds of dollars when you’ll eventually need to pay to replace for a smaller size?

That being said, try finding results other than a set of scales. Find a measuring tape and write down your measurements. Are your clothes looser? Can you go up three flights instead of two? Did you lift 5LBS today instead of 3LBS? Are you energetic, or are you less fidgety after you walked for 10 minutes? Notice you wanted the curtains open today instead of closed? Results show themselves in ways we tend to ignore.

Start slow, and schedule.
If getting up and down is the place you can start, that’s where you start. Aiming to be like Lou Ferrigno when you’re not used to any exercise isn’t realistic. Take the time to figure out where you are now, and where you’d like to be in three months. Journaling what physical exercises you did that day is a great way to track improvement.

I always hear people say I’m too busy as a barrier to getting in even five extra minutes of movement. A change in perspective is in order. Have a doctor’s appointment? Find the stairs and take one flight (or if you can, a few). Take the bus? Get off one step earlier. Drive? Park at the back of the grocery store parking lot (or start at the middle and work your way to the back). Have a 9 to 5? Get up and walk away from your desk for five minutes every few hours. Maybe even walk for half your lunch. Have kids (particularly young)? Include them in your new healthy lifestyle. Go play catch!
Write down the day after how you feel: if you notice you’ve flared, you’ve probably did a bit too much. Scale back, and try again. Pacing is the key. It won’t be easy, but over time you’ll start to notice improvement.

Eventually, find the times during your day where you’re inactive: cut back 5 minutes of that to dedicate to a walk. If motivation is a problem, and you use social media, make yourself accountable by telling people online you’re about to do it, then post right after you’re finished. You’ll be surprised by the encouragement you may receive.

Weigh and resistance are your friends.
This was scary for me, because I really though that activating the muscles that already hurt would damage them even further, causing more pain. The goal is to find balance, and don’t get discouraged by flares. DOMS (Delayed onset muscle soreness: pain and stiffness felt in muscles several hours to days after unaccustomed or strenuous exercise. The soreness is felt most strongly 24 to 72 hours after the exercise) is inevitable, and when you have chronic pain, it can feel twice as bad. Don’t be afraid of the pain. If you continue at a reasonable pace, the pain becomes less and less. After two months of adding small to moderate incline on my walk/jogs, my SI pain no longer shoots down my leg. It’s isolated now in the SI area only. This blew my mind.

When starting out, you don’t need to go buy expensive weights. When I started lifting for my TMJD related pain, I used soup cans. I then moved on to sealed 2L milk containers. As for which exercises to do, well, it’s best to search online. When it comes to strength, slow and controlled, and make sure you have proper form. Momentum should not be what’s doing the lifting. I also use resistance bands (before the weight and on days I’m too sore), which can be bought at Walmart.

Know when to rest, and expect to do more than average.
I have no clue what runner’s high feels like. Some days, after I’ve done only 30 minutes, I never want to see the rest of the world ever again. My anxiety makes me want to go, but my chronic pain shakes awake my depressive mood. These are signs that your body has done too much, and needs more recuperation time. It’s very easy to become demotivated when this happens. I’ve noticed that when I started resistance and weights, I needed a whole week before I could try again.

That’s the key: after you’ve given yourself permission to regroup, keep trying.

Vent your frustrations and limitations somewhere (online publicly if you need feedback, or privately). This is why tracking is important: what did you do in the past week that might have been too much? You can also ease yourself back into a more intensive regime with Tai chi, Yoga, and Pilates. Another great low-intensity is aqua aerobics or simply floating around in water. Go at your pace, and don’t do moves that hurt. Light movement encourages blood flow for faster recovery.

That’s all I can write about for now, I’ve been sitting too long and need to move.

All you have to do is start.

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