Exercise and Chronic Pain – The Be All or End All?

This post is a sponsored post written in collaboration with Jack Wills

For most able bodied people, working out is a simple decision of “Do I fancy going to the gym today? Do I move around from the comfort of my own home? Or do I just take a short break and continue with my usual exercise routine tomorrow?”. For able bodied, perfectly healthy and laboriously agile people, it’s cardio and weights, it’s exerting yourself with high levels of fitness, it’s feeling the burn in a beneficial way, walking away from equipment feeling pumped and energised and full of satisfaction.

For me, it’s daydreaming about getting into shape this way from my designated den of duvets and static rest. It’s making the most of the athleisure trend by using it to my own self care and comfort.¬† It’s browsing the likes of go to high street retailers like Jack Wills for Women’s Joggers¬†wishing I could make the most of the casual comfy wear by going out for a run with amenity instead of slugging about like a zombie acting out and attempting to desperately find relief. For me, it’s so much more than an impulsive, quick, get up and go, and I think for most spoonies it’s a similar situation every single day.

When you have a chronic illness and/or chronic pain, being mobile and frequently physically active is tougher than it appears to be and is advised to be.

With the amount of times I’ve had family and friends, ill-informed individuals, and even healthcare professionals tell me exercise is necessary for recovery, insist that I need to build up my strength, get my limbs moving, condition my muscles, and help me escape my mind for a while, I could start up a booklet of failed advice not to give to a person who already struggles with knowing irreversible brain damage has impacted their life for good.

(And the rebuked stare that follows when I inform them increased activity will do nothing but elevate my pain is just as priceless, tbh.)

Speaking for myself; it’s so hard to explain to people about the kind of pain I have. I tried to get my thoughts and understanding out when I revealed for the first time that I was a stroke survivor, but nothing really compares to the right here, right now sensation.

My pain is not coming from the joints or the limbs, it’s coming from the signals in my brain that can’t pass through properly causing haywire to the left side of my already impaired body. It’s burning nerve pain; sometimes moderate, often severe, even excruciatingly intolerable to the point I’m flopped out unresponsive to the normality of the world around me.

It’s not just a few aches or a strained ligament that can be cured by popping a pill, changing my posture, or with a good half hour on the bike. I will always have seriously debilitating chronic pain no matter how much exercise I do or don’t do!

The tale of exercise allowing people to reduce the awareness of pain and enabling you to overcome limited functioning isn’t always true and the guilt that comes with not being able to apply this to your own self is only set out to discourage you further.

There’s only so much we can hear and bear before we combust with frustration in a plea to stop throwing this mentality on to us when only we know the utmost of what we can and can’t do.

I think when you unveil the fact you have chronic pain, somehow it’s automatically labelled and linked to one solo category but there is no such thing, a generalised type of pain is non existent.

Exercise is complex but so is chronic pain.

There isn’t a universal division and everyone is different – different abilities, different conditions, different triggers, different perceptions. What applies to one person may not apply to another and that’s important to remember when considering how you can balance your movement with your pain.

Some days obviously are better than others. You most likely will be able to do more one day and nothing at all another and that’s what makes it more difficult to judge.

I remember putting myself through agony and pushing myself above the passable scale a few years back as I committed to an intense plan that would be hard enough for anyone to achieve, never mind someone with disability, and it did start to rule my life.

Was I happier with the appearance of my body? Yes. But was I suffering greatly without a breather? Double yes. Which means in the long term it just wasn’t worth it for the sake of my own health.

Now, as the years have rolled on, I feel like my pain has worsened for many contributing factors – but the lack of exercise certainly isn’t one of them.

I’m not going to miraculously find a cure by hiring a personal trainer or signing up to the gym – in fact that’s just two of the issues we do face with chronic and often unpredictable suffering.

Committing to a session or a dedicated sport just isn’t feasible when you have no idea how you’ll feel when waking up in the morning, not to mention the after effects, and the scary thought of being within an environment where everyone around you is strong and able and you’re just… not.

I mean, dedicating 5 days a week to hitting the gym and working your arse off? No way. I’d be extremely lucky to go 5 days without collapsing with exhaustion!

Truth be told, the last thing on your mind when you’re in agony is to get up on your feet and start bouncing around. (Hey, half the time I can’t even move from my bed and when I manage it, all I do is move to the sofa).

You do have to remind yourself the no pain no gain agenda does not refer to a person with chronic pain who just cannot exercise on the regular due to the inflation of pain it inflicts.

Look at it this way, when a sportsperson develops an injury they are immediately withdrawn, stop carrying out activity, and are told to rest up. Their hindrance will affect their performance, and it’s exactly the same for us spoonies.

Now, after that very lengthy interpretation (and a little bit of a rant, you know me once I get started) I also want to point out that although having a chronic condition may restrict you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re completely inoperative and goals are unattainable.

As I said, everybody is different. If you feel as though you can manage some gentle exercise, go for it! If you know full well it’s going to aggravate your pain, then don’t put yourself into that downfall position. You have to decide in your own time, pace yourself, live within your limitations, and work in your own range for your own good.

There’s plenty of things you can do and it can be so helpful to find your direction and your own stepping stone. Little and often is my motto and I stick to that in line with my body – I listen to what it’s telling me and I go without force.

It doesn’t even have to be the actual and typical exercise (you know, the yoga, the meditation, the treadmill, the push ups and the pull ups) it can be something as simple as taking 5 or 10 minutes out for a walk, stretching yourself out as you lay in bed, raising your legs, or on the bigger scale – swimming, hydrotherapy, and other water based activities that may provide some relief.

It’s a great way to recharge yourself and gradually build your stamina, even if it is for a short amount of time or if you can only manage a couple of steps. Anything is better than nothing and any improvement is praise worthy. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing or a mighty challenge it just has to be achievable for you. Progress has to start somewhere and there’s no time limit in reaching that.

This is all from personal experience and believe me when I say I know that getting up and taking a shower is an accomplishment to be proud of in itself! Any sort of activity when you’re bed bound is definitely something to pat yourself on the back for but it is such a positive thing to have that little implementation in your life that does grant you a way to stay and keep active (and there’s plenty of useful resources online to guide you if you’re stuck in limbo).

Despite me stating exercise can often have the reverse effect on someone with chronic pain, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the most of those days you feel better and well enough to take a stride forward towards supporting your body in becoming more supple.

Exercise is proven to have so many healthy advantages, both for the mind and the body.

It’s a great way to de-stress which in my case can help reduce pain and it can release those endorphins to make you feel happier which in time can also be vital to how your brain reacts to pain. If in a steady, stable routine, it can boost your energy and motivation meaning you’re able to feel more alive even in those times of despair.

Depending on your type of pain, it may actually be able to aid the tension and stiffness to relax and reduce those pain levels. It can rejuvenate your skin, it can increase brain memory, assist your needs if handled with care, and most importantly give you some control which isn’t always present when trying to manage a long term and permanent medical condition, alone.

But, in the end and when taking everything into consideration, you’ve got to always be mindful of the fact exercise is supposed to make you feel better, not worse.