How I exercise with an energy-limiting chronic illness

A lot of chronic illnesses come with fatigue and other symptoms that impact your energy. Some of them even have exercise intolerance as a symptom. In these illnesses, exercising causes symptoms and might even be dangerous. I have been diagnosed with ME/CFS, an illness that is characterized by what is called Post-Exertional Malaise or PEM. This means that any exertion, not just exercise, could trigger a worsening in symptoms that might result into being bedbound for days.

Personally, my ME is quite mild. I have never been bedbound, and I can do relatively much without overdoing it – especially when I plan in enough rest days. But actually exercising is very hard, as I do have exercise intolerance and do get PEM sometimes. However, it is still good for my other conditions (such as dysautonomia and hypermobility) to train my muscles and get in some movement. So in this post I will talk about five ways in which I try to get in exercise with exercise intolerance and limited energy.

Please keep in mind that this does not work for everyone. While exercise is beneficial for a lot of people, there are people who just cannot do it at all. These are just the ways that work for me and my personal circumstances.

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1. Yoga

I have been doing yoga at least somewhat regularly for over 3 years now. I’ve never been to a class, but I watch YouTube lessons and follow along with them. I usually pick out short lessons that are 20 minutes at most, and that are aimed at certain issues I have, such as back pain or digestion. There are some poses that are hard for me – downward dog always hurts my fingers and wrists – so I usually avoid videos that have a lot of these poses in them. But I love doing yoga, so it is something that I keep coming back to.

2. Going for walks

Another thing I’ve started doing a lot in the past year is walking. I don’t go for long walks – 30 minutes is usually long enough and on some days all I can manage is walk around the block. But if you are able to walk, it can be a great way to do some light, low impact exercise without raising your heart rate too much. I also really enjoy being outside and getting in some fresh air. I currently try to go for a walk at least once a week, but whether I am able to do so depends on what other things I need to do in a week – and often it also depends on the weather.

3. Physio exercises

Currently I am not treated by a physiotherapist, but I went to one a couple of years ago for two of my recurring pain issues: knee pain and back pain. My physio gave me some light exercises for both that have really helped reduce my pain. Although I don’t do them as much as I should, I often remember them again when my pain issues are playing up. Most of these exercises are quite short and I can do them daily, but they still train my muscles in a way that helps my hypermobility too.

4. Wii Fit

I got a Wii Fit back when it was still pretty new, and I still occasionally use it to this day! I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it, as I really hate how it is focused so much on BMI and losing weight. However, it became a lot more fun for me when I skipped the body test and just started playing the games I love. I don’t play Wii Fit a lot, but when I do I usually do some of the light muscle and yoga exercises, and I love doing steps or hula hoop. I enjoy games such as snowball throwing or ski jumping too, and on a good day I might even do a short run or cycle over the island. The major downside of Wii Fit is that it can be easy to overdo it, because it feels like you’re playing games instead of exercising. I usually try to only do one bigger activity, and then some short fun games.

5. Doing chores

Technically, doing chores around the house is not exercising – but if you have limited energy or exercise intolerance, I absolutely think it counts. Household tasks like making the bed, vacuuming or hanging up laundry require a lot of energy. Even showering can feel like a complete work-out some days. So I have a lot of days and weeks where none of the mentioned ways of exercise are going to work, because just taking care of myself, keeping the household running and making my work deadlines is already hard enough.

So if that’s all you can do, or if even that is not possible and your body is telling you to rest: then take some rest! I think it is important to get in exercise if you can, but it is so important not to overdo it. Even if you feel like you can still do something on one day, it can still be better not to do it if you know you will pay for it the next day. Being able to take care of yourself is much more important than any exercise. I always try to remember that I deserve to rest, regardless of whether I am productive enough by society’s standards.

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