I know that almost all gyms and fitness instructors have long-since moved away from the die-hard dedication to “No pain, no gain” but it can still be a psychological issue for someone with a chronic pain condition. Depending on what parts of you are affected or what triggers you might have, physical exercise can be limited to the extreme.

In a previous post I mentioned how, when my condition was at its worst, I was unable to breath deeply at all. I couldn’t swim, run, anything that would involve my body needing full chest expansion. I became frustrated and slowly (but surely) stopped moving. This was all well and good when I was 14 but today I can’t be so sedentary. So how can I work out and keep fit with pain waiting eagerly in the wings?

Learning Limits, Listening to Everything My Body Tells Me

It’s very much down to the individual when it comes to working out a fitness regime. I’ve met some great people who deal with pain 24-7 and have learned some slow-and-steady exercises that they can do alone. I’ve noticed many people with health conditions prefer to work out as an individual, perhaps because of our need to go so much slower or because gyms tend to be the stomping ground of fitness elites.

I’m not a fan of the competitive atmosphere we’re all aware of at the gym but it’s currently my main route for exercise. This is (for the most part) because I can control so many variables. I can focus on my breathing on a treadmill far more than when running outdoors, where there are hundreds of distractions that can delay my noticing that creeping twinge…. Through working on a treadmill, I’ve discovered that much of my fear of breathing had become embarrassingly psychological. With a friend we were able to get me running consistently for short bursts, without my chest screaming at me at all. It’s amazing how not testing your limits can sometimes lead to assumptions that lock you in.

That said, I always concentrate on what my body is telling me. It can be so frustrating to get to the gym, start a workout and realise that my body just won’t play along today. It’s depressing to get in from work and know that a work out is out of the question. Chronic pain doesn’t often have a schedule for someone to plot excersize around. Setting a workout day can be helpful, but I get disillusioned if I can’t do it.

Trying Something New and Accepting the Downsides

I prefer working out as part of a group, but I’d be the first to admit that this can cause problems of its own. Being upfront immediately with instructors has always been helpful, not just for keeping them informed but also gauging their reactions. This usually came in a few flavours. None of these were actually said outright but they were always easy to pick up on.

  • Okay, that’s fine. I have experience in members with different needs.
  • Okay, that’s something I don’t have experience in but so long as you’re clear I don’t see a problem.
  • Okay, that’s annoying though. You’re making my teaching more difficult.
  • Oh, so why are you here at all? I don’t understand.
  • No. You’ll cause problems and hold other people back. I don’t need this.

No matter how someone responds, I’d advise to go with your gut. I used to do ju jitsu in Plymouth and the usual instructor was thoughtful and actually made my condition something that would help train my partners in precision rather than hold them back. Sadly, on my orange belt I had a different instructor who was either unaware of my condition or wasn’t interested. Everything became intense and painful as he encouraged harder throws and tougher punches, far above what would be necessary for a low level belt such as orange.

What I hated most was being made to feel useless and weak, which is I think the main barrier for many with pain conditions. We are not weak, we’re coping with a great deal on a daily basis, being made to feel frail for something we can’t help is beyond insulting. Why would I pay for such an experience?

On the Lookout for Fun Exercise

I’ve been looking into a new group to take on for a while now. I’m concerned that my previous negative experience in holding me back somewhat but I’m still determined. There is no reason why I can’t attempt a range of new classes, gauging from the instructors reaction and instruction whether it’s more than my body (or the instructor themselves) can handle.

I’m currently torn between Crossfit and Ninjitsu, an odd blend of workout options! Crossfit is described as incredibly intense (just look at this Crossfit equipment!) but it also focuses on short bursts of physical activity. My body usually hates long, drawn out exercise, the equivalent of having a sulky toddler that gets bored and complains. Plus Crossfit Plymouth offers some introductory classes, which are meant to ease you in. If I can’t survive those then it’s fairly certain the full-strength class isn’t for me.

But I also loved martial arts. Not only is it great for self defence but the focus on body physicality. The first time you take a guy down with minimal effort because the elbow doesn’t want to bend that way is a great feeling. Empowering is a word that’s thrown around a lot but it’s utterly appropriate.

So that’s where I am, wondering what my body can handle. Guess there’s only one way to find out!


Kayleigh Herbertson

Kayleigh is a 20 something year old woman who is currently living with a chronic pain condition, a skin condition and a mental health condition. Juggling these three can be something of a challenge but she's always ready to take things on head first!

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