The Myth of Not Doing Enough for your Health

At the end of May I started a new yoga program that encompasses workouts for everyone from beginners to advanced practitioners. The program has a community on Facebook that many people use for questions, support and to show off their transformations after using the program for a long period of time.

But the types of posts I see the most are people who talk about how ashamed they are for something. Either they confess the sin of not eating ‘right’, or they haven’t worked out in awhile, or didn’t do as well as they wanted to, and on and on. And every time I see one of those posts I want to just to comment…

“STOP IT!!!”

We are taught at an early age that there are only ‘bad’ things, and ‘good’ things. If we aren’t one, then we are the other. And the health and wellness industry has made millions off this fact. We are made to feel horrible that we don’t live up to the photoshopped pictures that show us perfect images of health and fitness that looks nothing like what exists in real life. Slogans convey the intent that if you only did ‘A’ or ‘B’, you’d look just like them. (Of course, either option means paying through the nose for gym memberships, fitness equipment, personal trainers and anything else they can think of for the up-sell.)

Having any sort of chronic mental or physical illness just amplifies how horrible we are made to feel if we can’t do everything that we are told to do in order to get healthy. We are the ones that need aid the most, and yet, most of the things that we are told to do are things that are just too hard to start all at once, making us feel even more broken even if we try.

I’m not saying there isn’t work involved in getting and staying healthy. There is work involved to create positive change in life, and once you start that work, it’s a struggle to keep going until better habits are created. But just like the image of optimum health looks different for everyone, our starting points are also going to look different. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started something only realize it’s too much on my body and I end up in bed for almost a week.

But that is not my failing. That is life.

If things were perfect, those of us who really want to try and change would each be given use of a personal life coach and trainer to work with us to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and work on a personal step by step plan to get us healthy. And every time we lost a couple days because something else got in the way, we would simply take stock of where we were with the help of that trainer, and start moving forward again. And the trainer would tell us plainly, it wouldn’t be starting over by any stretch of the imagination, like many of the posters in my yoga facebook community say it is. It’s simply working through an issue and continuing what was started.

But, we don’t live in a perfect world. We are left to our own devices, and left to fend for ourselves, with many like me feeling even more horribly about themselves than they already do because we can’t do any of the workouts or dietary habits that we are asked to do. It truly pisses me off.

If I could, I would reply to all of the people that talk about ‘falling off the wagon’ or saying how horrible they feel because they weren’t able to keep moving forward in the program at the pace that was laid out for them. I’d tell them that they are already doing so very much more for themselves by just starting the process. I’d tell them what amazing wonderful people they are for even starting. I’d tell them how strong they are for trying to find a way to make themselves healthier. I’d tell them how proud I am of them for even trying to start what looks like a very long and hard journey.

And, I’d also tell them they need to find their own way. It may mean only doing one workout a week, only cutting out certain foods and leaving their comfort foods, or something else. Whatever it is that gives internal strength and confidence to the person trying to change their life, that is all that matters. Because only that will be the key in making changes for the better.

There is a lot of health and wellness sayings out there that I think are total crap. But there are some that are worth keeping in mind. A saying that I think is worth keeping around is this; “Either you say you can, or you say you can’t. Either way, you’re right.” Diamond Dallas Page says this during his workouts, and it’s a good thing to keep in mind, especially for those with chronic illness. I firmly believe we have more control over our lives than we think. It takes time to figure out where and how, but with work and time we can find the strength and better health we strive for.

Be Your Own Advocate

A chronic pain scale

Unfortunately there are some certainties in this life that sufferers of chronic illness have to face. From facing employers who do not have equitable work policies to dealing with healthcare providers who just really don’t. know what is going on with our bodies, it’s enough to want to make you cry. I know I have at times.

But it’s because we have these things to contend with that makes what I am about to say even more important. Yes, there will feel like there are times when we are the victim of our illnesses, and we have to allow ourselves to grieve for things that are no longer open to us. But then, regardless of whether or not we have a caregiver in our lives, we must become our own advocate and learn to fight for the things that we know we need.

This doesn’t mean we are going to get everything we advocate for, But with enough thought, data collection and learning to understand what you can and cannot get, you can be surprised at what can go your way.

Understanding Your Energy Use

For the first several years of my illness, I still tried to push myself to do some of the things that I had done before the full onset of my symptoms. And while I did have some accomplishments, most of them put me in bed for days afterward. I realized that some of my issue was that I had no idea what I was capable of; I simply pushed through any pain and uncomfortable, thinking I it wouldn’t cause any repercussions. I was wrong.

Figuring out what I could and couldn’t do took a lot of time. And I’m still doing it, 7 years later. I had to start from the very beginning by giving myself time to do the bare minimum; work, food, hygiene and some cleaning of the house, and basic cooking. After awhile, I realized that I did have some energy for other things on certain days, so I started scheduling a little more on those days. But I still kept at least one day a week to do the bare minimum (and still do). By tuning into my body, I was able to better understand what energy I needed, where I could become more efficient and where I needed to spend more time. And I also figured out the warning signs of when I was about to put myself into a flare, which was crucial to understand.

Get your Medical Information Documented

This sounds like it’s a no-brainer, but I’m still surprised at how much I think I’ll remember about my medications, only to not be able to give that information to a healthcare professional when asked. I now carry a list of my meds in my bullet journal so that it can be pulled out when needed.

But medications aren’t the only medical information we should be tracking. If we can’t effectively communicate things like pain types and pain levels to healthcare professionals, we will never be able to allow them to help us properly. I will never forget the times when I worked in an ER triage and saw a nurse’s frustration at working with a pain patient. She she would ask how bad something hurt on a scale of 1 to 10, many patients would simply say 11. While that response gives adequate information about how upset the patient is at their own pain, it doesn’t do much to help someone understand what they are going through. A pain scale with descriptions can be very helpful in that situation, and can be printed out and kept with your list of medications. That way you can read the description along with the number, which allows more understanding about the state you are in.

Prepare to be Your Own Caregiver

I wish everyone who has chronic illness the best caregivers they can have. Really. Although I’m very lucky to have a good caregiver and can usually effectively communicate my needs to him, there are many times when the level of pain that I’m at doesn’t allow me to tell him what I need, or he’s in the middle of work or possibly not at home when I’m flaring. It’s in the cases where he’s not available or when I can’t tell him that I need something that I have to fight my body to get whatever it is that I need or want to be more comfortable. And I don’t wish that fight on anyone.

But, the fight to take care of yourself in flare ups does happen. And because it does, being prepared is huge. To get prepared, I thought about my last flare up and thought about what I used. I needed extra blankets and pillows, wanted a bag of popcorn for comfort, and wanted to watch some mindless TV shows. I now have extra blankets and pillows downstairs as well as up, have saved some seasons of shows for flares, and I also have a stash of medications near my bed with a bottle of water just in case I can’t make it downstairs. That way it won’t be so hard to fight to get the things I need should the hubby be away.

I know I’ve just scratched the surface here. There are many other things that you can do to make things easier on yourself when medical issues rear their ugly head, and my plan is to talk more about this soon. But I think the biggest thing that I want to get across, especially to those who may not feel like they have the support that they need, is to be that advocate for yourself. Know what your limits are. Have things written down and available in a purse or bag. Keep things ready when flareups strike. I know for many of us thinking of ourselves is hard to do, especially when we have jobs, families and homes to take care of. But we cannot take care of those things if we don’t put in the time to take care of ourselves first. And the sooner we learn this lesson, the sooner we can work to get back to some semblance of a normal life.

The Plan to Reengage with the World

With a snap of the fingers (and new CDC guidelines), for those who have been vaccinated, the pandemic seems to be over.

Yesterday, it was publicized that about 62% of the American population have received at least one vaccine. And with President Biden wanting that number to be at 70% by July 4, the world is going to open up pretty fast. That fact, along with the decision of my company waiting until after Labor Day to have us resume on-site work, has me thinking about this oncoming summer of change and what its going to mean for my day to day routine.

Part of me wants to do the same thing I see many others on my feed do; immediately embark on a plan to lose the Covid weight, install healthy habits over the ones that I got into during the pandemic, and be able to walk into my office in September stronger and more sure of myself than ever before. And overall, that is what I’m considering doing.

But I’m going to do it on MY terms, and not based on the pie-in-the-sky goals of what most media fitness junkies want you to strive for. And don’t get me started on the photoshopped-bombshell pictures of what society thinks a healthy, athletic person should look like. I need to think logically, because trying to do it any other way would only exacerbate the chronic illnesses that I’m doing my damndest to live with.

So what is the “right” way to make change?

I think where many of us get into trouble is that they feel like they are starting from a place where they dislike everything about themselves. They hate what their body looks like, and are constantly reminded of what it can’t do. They hate the habits in their life that have made the situations that they are now in, and they want to change everything, and do it NOW. I’m not going to say that doesn’t work, but it definitely is a path that won’t work for me anymore. The last time I tried that plan of action was when I trained for my last half marathon, and ended up losing almost a week of work due to the fact that I had trained myself right into a serious fibromyalgia flare.

We also have to look at our environment. This pandemic has caused trauma to many, many people, and it still continues to do so. We have to be gentle with ourselves so that trauma can start to show itself and begin to heal. Throwing a brand new diet and exercise regimen into the mix isn’t always the best thing when you still may be eating for comfort, or needing to give yourself even more mental rest to be able to get through the work day, deal with familial issues or the political craziness that still plagues the United States. .

With all of that in mind, my suggestion is not going to be to start with the end in mind. Instead, try to simply start with small things that can be done now. In my case, I’ve still been counting calorie on most days, and I have a good idea of how much calorie I eat each day. So my first challenge is going to be to drop that daily range by 100-200 calories. It won’t be much to lose weight, but it’s something to get me in the habit of thinking about what I eat. My second challenge is to add extra activity to my day. It might be walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes, taking my dog out for a walk, or doing more yoga, but whatever I do, am going to do at least one of these each day. And I’m not going to do them to the point where I’m pushing myself; if it means that I’m doing 30 minutes of chair yoga because my legs hurt too much, it’s still yoga, and it still counts. (I also have a plan for 30 minutes of yoga in bed in case I really have a bad flare, just to keep going on my commitment.)

The Next Steps

After about three weeks of cutting a little bit of what I eat and adding some activity, I will then consider to decide what I want to accomplish. Do I want to focus on weight loss, running outside or doing races again? Maybe I just want to work on core strength, or standing endurance for when I get back into the office and start to have those hallway ‘meetings’ when I get asked questions as I’m moving from place to place? Whatever it will be, I want to make those decisions based on how I feel and what I think I can do, not what I feel like I’m expected to do.

Setting small daily goals first is to allow myself to get some confidence that I can attain the larger ones with proper planning and work. And not only will I feel more confident, the two steps I outlined above will start me mentally thinking about the very things that will help me move toward loftier goals with simple tweaking. Sure, I’m not going to be one of those ‘before and after 90-day success stories’, but I’m not willing to beat the shit out of myself to become one of those stories. That’s one of the main reasons why I have the chronic illness in the first place; I pushed my body again and again to be stronger, faster, leaner and endure more, and all I did was create an environment for breaking myself.

Failure is an Option

Things happen, and there will be days when I don’t meat the two goals that I have set out for myself so far. But I’m not going to sweat it. Especially because of the chronic illness, I have to let my body lead here, not my head or what I think I ‘should’ be doing. There may be days where the weather means I have more pain. And while I have that bed yoga routine at the ready, there is a possibility that I may not even have the strength for it.

The other issue is that we aren’t all out of this pandemic, either, and there will still be stressors when dealing with Covid deniers, or those still polarized about the election. Believe it or not, both still exist. In fact, I just had one show up at my house to do some maintenance! I had no idea he was a Covid denier until halfway into the task, he asked my husband what he did for a living, and when my husband mentioned he worked at the hospital, he went on a rant about Covid and false case numbers! Needless to say, I had a drink that night, which put me over my suggested calorie limit for the day, but I didn’t sweat that too much.

Accepting that there will be times that we fail in our goals is not allowing failure to automatically occur. Instead, it’s the first start in not beating yourself up when it does happen (and it will). We are human, and we will fail, as we are not infallible. If we were, we wouldn’t be on this planet in the first place.

In those cases, you have to tell yourself that you will do better the next day, and then work to do so. By doing this, you may find that in the end you will actually have less failure overall, because instead of spending the energy to beat yourself up, you are using that energy to do better.

So those are my thoughts and plans on moving forward through the summer. I don’t have any grandiose plans of trying to run a half marathon or compete in sparring at summer’s end, but I do think that I’m on my way to being just a little bit healthier, mentally and physically, which will serve me well once I get back to the office. And not only has my documenting the plans here forced me to make a public accounting of what it is I want to do (I said it, now I have to do it!) I hope that it allows someone else with chronic illness recognize that they also can do more than they think they are capable of. It just needs to be done in small steps, and sometimes without the main goal in mind.