Exercise and Autoimmune Flares

aerobics_5 R. DaneA.T.Falcone 1980s Fads.

1980’s Aerobics Fashion Photo Credits Google Images: R. DaneA.T.Falcone 1980s Fads.

Back in the 1980’s, I was into aerobics: step aerobics, the grapevine, big hair with headbands which eventually led to leotards, matching tights and leg warmers. I was addicted.

I was introduced to running during the early 1990’s. I embraced my life as a runner with arms wide open. I would run 4-6 miles, 5-6 days a week.

At the time, I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and later Durham. That part of the country is magical, filled with beauty, trees, prestigious universities.  Bell towers chime the hours at the universities and I remember timing my daily runs just so that I would pass under the carillons during the ringing the bells.

My runs through Carolina’s campus would leave me misty-eyed with the knowing that I got to be there–somewhere so beautiful and I promised myself that I would always surround myself with such beauty. I remember mapping daily runs at Duke to ensure that I would pass under the chiming of the bells at sunset. That always gave me chills, it was a was a pinch-me part of my day; that I got to do that.

My runs made me feel so good. I ended them with a prayer of thanksgiving for my health and a request that I would always have the strength and endurance to be a runner: to put one foot in front of the other and think of nothing, as a way to “chill” because it was so good for me, it calmed me and it was a great workout.

Then, 2001 happened. I was 29 and had a horrific onset of crohn’s disease which landed me in the hospital for a summer and early fall. I was in and out of the hospital a lot for the first years. That is typically how autoimmune diseases work, the first 2-3 years are the hardest, while the doctors figure out how to get them under control, while you figure out how to live with them. It is all quite crushing.

Once I stabilized, I decided to re-claim my life. I was going to be “who I used to be” and that included running. I was about 31.

Every time I would run, I would trigger a crohn’s flare. I am not talking about the GI symptoms. Yes, the GI symptoms were involved, but the fevers, joint pain, overall flu-like feelings that come before you either have to go on steroids or go back into the hospital would happen.

It was sad to me and I did not understand it. I just wanted to get back to the magical runs that I used to be able to do. I wanted to be able to do something that I used to be able to do, because, to me–that young woman had been successful and beautiful; suddenly I felt like a broken mess. I felt like damaged goods. At the time, I was unable to see that God had developed a new strength through the pain and hospitalizations that I had gone through. I am only starting to see that (and it is 14 years later). 

In 2008, I got engaged and prayed that I would remain flare-free throughout my engagement. I wanted to walk down the aisle steroid-free, I did not my engagement, wedding or honeymoon to be interrupted by a trip to the ER or hospitalization for a flare.

On a whim, I walked into a yoga studio that was in the historic district of our town. I felt fabulous after the class. I had been able to “exercise” and move my body, but I did not trigger any flare-like symptoms. In fact, I seemed to cool my immune system. I was hooked.

I have practiced yoga since 2008. My practice went from restorative to more challenging classes. Right now, I am back at restorative as I am recovering from a leukemia relapse.

This is what I have found with yoga–I can do it without flaring. It is good for me, the twists are great for the GI tract. Yoga offers so many calming benefits to our stress/cortisol levels that it is a great form of exercise for anyone, especially for people who are living with autoimmune diseases.

Over the years I have found that, in addition to yoga, I can walk, hike, kayak, swim, get out and play with our dog without heating up my immune system. However more rigorous forms of exercise send me into a flare.

Until recently, I only understood this from my personal experience. However, over the past 6-8 months, I have read several articles suggesting that it is possible to irritate an autoimmune disease by exercising too intensely.

Not everyone with an autoimmune disease has to change their exercise routine, but many people do and I am in that group.

For me, learning to let go of “who I was” and embrace who I am has been very difficult.

I had to mourn the loss and that is an important stage. However, now I am at the stage of recognizing that I do have some serious diagnoses but I determined to live a full, happy life. I am also committed to find as many pain-free days as possible…my feel good days.

I know that I am a much stronger woman for all that I have been through, the strength just came to me in ways unexpected.

That is how life is, though…really for all of us.

Everyone is fighting something, if your battle is chronic pain or illness, don’t let it suck you into chasing the dreams of who you used to be.

Illness changes a person, however the fearlessness that you gain by facing it each day makes you so much stronger than you ever thought you could be.

It has taken me almost 2 decades to learn this lesson.

Isaiah 40: 28-31

Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.


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