How to Get Exercise When Everything Hurts

This is a big question for all Chronic Pain Warriors, and not one easily answered. The medical community stresses that ‘light’ exercise is good for autoimmune diseases, and chronic pain, but most members of the medical community aren’t suffering (sorry, fighting) chronic pain themselves. It’s easy to say, get some more exercise, even if I say it to myself. It’s harder to do when, often, just walking or being on my feet all day causes my joints to hurt. So how do we balance this? There has to be a way. It’s not just GPs and rheumatologists saying exercise more either; it’s physiotherapists, naturopaths, and chiropractors too.

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First off, do what feels comfortable and make sure it’s something you enjoy. Personally, my favourite cardio activities are walking and hiking. I have a small dog, who requires walks, and though, occasionally I’m a bad dog mom and can’t get him out for a decent walk every day, I usually try 20-30 minutes around the neighbourhood with him. That, or on my days off from work, we go for a hike together. There are some great trails near  my place that are not too long. Basically, we get to hike while staying in the city. My pace (or should I say our pace, though when we hike he’s off leash and can run ahead) depends on how I’m feeling that day. If my pain is low, I tend to move a little quicker and go for a bit longer, keeping in mind that I don’t want to wear myself out. If I’m having a bit of a tougher day as far as pain goes, I slow down, and go as far as I can, even if it’s not as far as normal. For those of you who prefer running, bicycling, or other high cardio sports, I would suggest the same approach. I also read an article recently on “mindful running” in Mindful magazine. Sometimes, I do the “mindful walking,” which is great. One of the heads of the mindful running movement apparently has an autoimmune disease and runs marathons. Just proof we can do it.

FullSizeRenderSpike and I on a hike.

The type of exercise recommended to me by every health care professional is yoga. And not just any yoga (in fact, they warn against hot yoga specifically). Lighter, more gentler yoga like yin, is typically what is suggested. It’s about slower movement, and stretching. Each pose is held for roughly two to five minutes, and are fairly easy to do. Most yoga studios offer yin yoga classes, or if you’re like me and don’t have the extra cash to spend on going to the gym or yoga studio, buy a yoga mat and YouTube some classes. I found a bunch of good ones. Yin yoga is something I just started to get into but I enjoy it because it falls into the whole “mindfulness” realm and my body feels good afterwards. The only problem with doing it at home, is that my dog thinks that it’s play time because I’m on the floor with him. If only I could teach him to do yoga with me…

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But what about strength training? We’ve covered cardio and stretching, but how can we make our muscles stronger? Especially for those of us, who in addition to joint pain, deal with frequent muscle pain. Some of the exercises my physiotherapist has given me are for strength and can be done at home on a yoga mat, two to three time per day. I just started seeing a chiropractor, who also happens to be a certified personal trainer. On my next visit his focus is going to be on giving me strength training exercises that I can do at home on my yoga mat. The best bet for finding out what kind of strength training is best for you is to see a physiotherapist or a chiropractor and get their suggestions. It will vary a bit for everyone, and they should be able to find exercises that will help you with your specific needs.

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I’m not an expert. I’m still learning and growing as I deal with my illness, and as with every post I write, if you have any suggestions, or thing you’d like to add or comment on, please leave comment on the article or send my a direct message via email.

**There are varying degrees to chronic pain. Always make sure to consult with your health care professionals before starting a new exercise regime.


No Gluten, No Dairy, No Sugar… Diet Restrictions as a “Cure” and What Happens When You’re a F*cking Foodie?!

Okay, first off, I’ll apologize for the language. I don’t want to turn anyone off from this blog because of it. I’m passionate, in general, and also about food. I grew up in a household where my (white) parents cooked from an authentic Chinese cookbook and would take us out to eat dim sum, sushi, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian food on a regular basis. We ate fondus while watching the Oscars, and for birthdays we were allowed to pick a nicer restaurant to go for dinner. I’m not blaming my parents for my love of food, on the contrary, I’m thanking them. I will eat anything put in front of me, because I might as well try it. (Last summer, I went to a Mexican restaurant in Kensington with some friends and we had grasshoppers. They were mixed with peanuts, and honestly, just tasted like peanuts).

IMG_0731Sushi from my recent trip to New York City.

The first time I heard that diet changes were good for things like chronic pain, and in my case, lupus, was in some literature on the subject I was reading not long after diagnosis. It seemed hard. Impossible. So I ignored it, like I did much back then (I say that like it was a millennium ago, in reality it was about a year). The second time was when I started seeing a naturopath. She had me give up gluten and dairy for a month. And I did… for just over two weeks of it… I pretty much felt like I was going to die (yes, it’s easy to be dramatic sometimes) because I went from eating whatever I wanted (ALL THE DELICIOUS FOOD) to having very strict rules of what I could and could not eat. As much as I love salad, living off it does not make me happy. I didn’t necessarily notice a change with the amount of pain I was in during the few weeks I maintained the diet, what I did notice was that my stomach was a lot calmer after I ate. In that sense, it took away a certain kind of pain.

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Here is where the problem presented itself: I love food, all food, too much to completely cut something out. I realize my naturopath could’ve also suggested more to be cut out. A lot of people with lupus and other autoimmune conditions also cut out sugar or go on “paleo” diets. I suppose if you’re a picky eater anyway, or just not crazy about food it’s easier (though I have a feeling even then it’s not easy since most first world food is centred around sugar, dairy, and gluten). I have a friend who is just finishing up chiropractic school who also suggested a diet change of cutting all of this out. Not forever, just for now. As much as I appreciate that this totally might work, I’m sure any foodie who is reading this will understand that it is incredibly difficult to think it, let alone do it.

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So where did I go? What have I tried instead? As my mother has always said “moderation rules the nation.” Cut back. If you can cut it out, then do it, cut it out. If you’re like me and can’t cut it out, just have less than normal. Switch from milk to almond or soy milk, save cheese for special occasions, eat gluten free cereal, limit the amount of sandwiches and bread consumed, drink less soda and instead have more water. Don’t eat fast food (not something I was ever really prone too) and stay away from all the greasy things (I’ve eaten bacon only once since December). It’s all healthy living anyway. The amount of caffeine consumed can also have a huge effect (I’m saving this one for another post), so alternate between coffee and herbal teas rather than just have coffee. These are all things I’ve been doing for the past seven months. They help. Overall, I’ve been in less physical pain (and this is probably a combination of many things, including diet), and my stomach is certainly happier after a meal than it’s ever been. The best part is, I can still eat all the interesting, ethnic foods I love, as long as I balance them out with meals that follow the more “pain free” suggestions out there.

IMG_7721Remnants of a delicious Middle Eastern tapas dinner in Toronto.

I’m including an article that a friend sent to me. It’s a good read, and everyone should check it out.

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When You Want to Travel the World But Have to Deal with Chronic Pain

An ex-partner once told me that she had serious doubts about our ability to travel together because I’m in chronic pain. Since traveling as much as possible was a priority for both of us, this statement brought up some sincere doubts about it for myself. But does that mean I give up the idea of seeing as much of the world as I possibly can? Not for me. Not when I’ve prioritized it. The month of April was a big travel month for me, and it taught me what I physically can and cannot do when traveling, as well as how to make the most of my experiences while dealing with pain.

FullSizeRenderJust before take-off to Europe.

Let’s take a short journey through my travel experiences of April 2017. From the first to the fourth, my friend and I went to New York City (my first time, her second). I went with a newer friend so we had never spent that much time together at once, nor had we ever traveled together before. The trip overall was a blast, and I modified what I did, leaving some of what she did up to her. For example, I really could only party one night, so the first night we stayed out clubbing until 2:30am. The next night, she wanted to go out again (and did so on her own) but there was no way that super-fatigued me was going to have another late night. I was in bed by midnight, she shuffled back in around 3. We stayed in an airbnb that was a walk up, and the amount of walking we did during the four days was insane. The few times I was in a lot of pain we were able to take a rest, or I’d power through. Then, from April 28 to May 5, I met my parents in Vienna, Austria. It had been nine years since I was last in Europe (France), so this was a trip I was very much looking forward to, and I knew nothing was going to stop me from making the most of it. My parents also live in a different province than me so I hadn’t seen them since December, and I certainly haven’t done a trip like this with them in over ten years. We did two day trips as well – one to Budapest, Hungary and the other to Bratislava, Slovakia. My parents are older so murmurs about arthritis pains and fatigue fit right in (I try not to be sad that my body also thinks it’s old). The trip included as much, if not more, walking than my NYC trip, and was amazing. I love travel, I love Europe, and I love adventures. The nice thing is, because I was with my parents and not a friend or sibling, I didn’t feel pressured to go out late (quite the contrary, they’d rather start early in the day and go to bed early). There were a few times when the chronic pain got to me (the difference between traveling with a friend and a parent is I would tell my friend but not my parents – don’t want to worry them), but I pushed through. How many times would I get to explore a palace in Bratislava, or walk through Mozart’s house in Vienna? I think that’s the point my ex-partner missed, I wasn’t going to give up experiences just because of some stupid pain.

FullSizeRenderJust me having some breakfast at Tiffay’s in NYC.

After the Europe trip, I took a few days to digest before thinking about what to write in this post. What did I learn? What worked for me? (In regards to traveling with chronic pain, that is). The first and most important thing is POSITIVITY. This is a motto and theme in my life. Sometimes positivity is hard, maybe even nearly impossible (though not while traveling, in my opinion), but it can certainly get you through a lot. I want to see and do ALL the things, so I’m going to. I’m going to start each day positively and not succumb to thoughts about pain or “what ifs”. “What ifs” are terrible. They don’t help you in the moment, only cause worry for the future. As someone who struggles with anxiety in relation to chronic pain, I get my fair share of “what ifs” but I’m learning to not let them control me. And if they don’t control me here in Canada, then they definitely are not going to control me when I’m abroad.

IMG_1322After climbing to the top of the tallest tower in Bratislava Castle.

Pace yourself, say no when you need to, and push yourself when you can. I’m not going to run a marathon (at least not at this point in my life, and to be fair, I don’t like running so I probably never will). If I can’t do something or I need to slow down I will. This doesn’t mean I will have to sacrifice seeing or doing things, but they made need to be modified. I know people who make fun of the “Hop On and Off” Busses here in Toronto, that tourists often use. Well guess what? I used them in Austria and Hungary. They were awesome. You get some history, and it got me off my feet long enough to conserve energy and fight through any pain better when we “hopped off” to go see some sights. I mentioned that in New York, I said no to going out with my friend one night. I had to, and it was fair. Luckily she’s a nurse so she really didn’t give me a hard time about it (well maybe just a little but in a purely joking manner). Did I miss anything super exciting? Nope, just a night at the bar. And by saying no I was easily able to get up early and have breakfast in front of Tiffany’s (Yep, I’m a big movie geek and proud of it). Whenever I can push myself, I do, and I did, on both trips. Walk through the pain to see the sights, sit when I can, but see all that I can see and do all that I can do.

IMG_1323Crossbow shooting outside of Buda Castle in Budapest, Hungary.

The most important part, whether it’s while traveling or just in life in general, is to have fun! We only get to live once and I don’t want my chronic pain to control how I feel about every situation or stop me from having a good time. So I don’t. A lot of it is a conscious effort and it doesn’t work every day of the week, but I made it work while abroad because how could I not? Travel is fun! I’m already planning my next overseas trip with my parents and younger brother – Egypt and then somewhere in Europe (I’m rooting for Switzerland). If anyone thinks anything is going to stop me from seeing the pyramids or hiking through the Alps, they are gravely mistaken. It’s my life and I’m going to make the most of it. And I truly encourage all of you to do the same.

If anyone reading has any travel advice, feel free to comment or send a message!