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Chronic illness and exercise: 5 tips to incorporate movement

chronic illness and exercise

Many of us who have chronic illnesses or medical conditions want to exercise and lead active lifestyles. However, despite attempts to keep moving, chronic illness can often be a major obstacle in working towards fitness goals. My fitness goals have had multiple starts and stops over the years due to medical complications, recovery, pregnancy, injury, or other issues that have crept up on me. Life with a chronic condition, which many times may be “invisible”, often leads people to make quick recommendations that are not applicable to you and your life. However for me, my exercise routine is also my self care routine and it has allowed me to cope with my cardiac condition. Therefore before beginning any new fitness routine, here a few tips that I’ve used over the years:

1. Consult with your doctor

For those of us who have chronic illness this might seem like the “no-duh” thing to do, but I have to admit that perhaps out of fear or anxiety of what my doctor might have said, I am guilty of skipping this step. This is probably the most important step to ensure that you’re taking the appropriate precautions in your fitness routine. Despite my concern that my doctor’s recommendations might not be what I want to hear, I’ve come to learn that my physicians usually want the same thing as I do, which is to be as healthy and active as possible. Also by consulting with your doctor, they’ll be able to let you know if there are any contraindications with the medications you are taking and your plans to exercise. Knowing my doctor’s recommendations for me has also provided me the mental freedom to push myself physically rather than question if I need to slow down or hang up my running shoes.

2. Start slow

For those of us who are just getting started or restarted in our exercise routines, we all know the initial stages are not always fun. Especially at the beginning of any new fitness program, it’s important to start slow while you’re building up endurance and prevent injury. Many of us want to shoot for big goals that might be achievable, however it’s important to also evaluate what is maintainable considering your condition and lifestyle. My personal view for fitness is that it’s a marathon not a sprint and to focus on the longer-term goal of your overall health in order to build that foundation to be successful. Walking, alternating between running and walking, yoga, and light strength training are all great ways to start building that base to lead an active lifestyle.

how to exercise with chronic illness

3. Be flexible

My exercise of choice is running, but there have been many times when due unforeseen circumstances I could not do what I love for exercise. I’ve learned the importance of listening to my body and self-compassion when sometimes, what I want to do just isn’t an option. As a result, having a backup plan and being flexible has helped me continue to incorporate movement despite obstacles. When running isn’t an option, I’ve often shifted to walking, swimming, yoga, or even accepting it as an opportunity to rest and focus on another area of my life. When these moments arise, it’s me listening to and respecting my body. It’s not me giving up. I’m simply pivoting to give my body the time it needs to heal and recover. I try to remind myself that hopefully this is a blip in my fitness routine and that patience and perseverance will help me recover.

4. Just do it

There are many days when I don’t feel motivated or want to exercise. The trick that I’ve used for many years is to get my running clothes on and “just go for 15 minutes”. Often by the 14th minute of running, my mindset has shifted, I’m thoroughly enjoying being outside, and I’m happy that I made the decision to go. Often if we wait to feel motivated to do something, that feeling never arrives. However if we act first, our behaviors can shift our thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Once we “just do it” and we’re out the door and moving, we usually feel the positive effects on our mental and emotional well-being. There is a difference between not being motivated and recognizing when your body is giving you signs that it needs to rest. By being active, I’ve learned to tune into my body and recognize the difference. Usually my 15 minute rule is a good indicator between the two. If I’m still not feeling it after 15 minutes, I head home and know that it’s a day to take it easy.

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5. Do what you love

The best kind of exercise for a person who has chronic illness, is the one that you enjoy. When you have a medical condition finding an exercise that is enjoyable and feasible can at times be challenging due to physical limitations. However the best way to be consistent and strive for longer term goals, is to choose an activity that you actually like doing. Over the years I’ve tried kick boxing (I always seemed to be kicking the opposite direction as everyone else), I’ve tried tennis (if anything inside the fence counted as “in” I’d be a pro), I’ve tried surfing (I don’t have the best balance), so I ultimately always return to running. Limited equipment, convenient, I love the views on my local runs, and limited coordination needed. Running has been my go-to choice of exercise since I was in college and I’ve been able to be consistent since I actually like it. My 11 minute miles won’t win me any races, but they keep me healthy, active, and the best self care activity I’ve found and I’ll continue as long as I’m able.

Working with a personal coach and developing a wellness plan can also help individuals gain the clarify and motivation they need to move towards their wellness vision. Contact Kristin to learn more about developing your own personal wellness vision to start moving you towards your goals.

***The ideas, concepts, and opinions expressed in all Living Openhearted posts are intended to be used for educational purposes only. The author and publisher are not rendering medical advice of any kind, nor are intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease, condition, illness, or injury. It is imperative that before beginning any diet or exercise program, you receive full medical clearance from a licensed physician. Authors and publisher claim no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or damage as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material.


1 Comment

Thank you for the inspiration. I needed the reminder that getting started is sometimes the hardest part... and that I can tell myself that 15 minutes will be enough. Will be fantastic.. To just do it. In fact, I can start with telling myself I will just exercise for 5 minutes... and usually, after those initial minutes I will feel like doing a bit more, and then a bit more... I would say my exercise of choice is walking and recently I have been enjoying yoga. But walking is my great love, walking outside.... And you can walk ANYWHERE and discover a little bit of the world while you exercise.... Enjoy nature or the city, a trail or a sidewalk..…

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