Recently someone asked me what advice I would give to another person with chronic pain who hoped to become physically active. After reflecting on the question a bit, I’ve come up with a few suggestions that might be helpful. (With the disclaimer that I’m not a physician or a physical trainer, just a fellow chronic pain sufferer.)
Challenge your belief system.
I remember when I was twenty-one telling a friend that I would never be able to stop taking narcotics as long as I had a headache. How wrong I was. In fact, I threw out my shoebox full of prescriptions by the end of that month. Then I believed I would never be able to go for a run again. Wrong again. I believed I would never work full-time. And again I proved that false.
The truth is that of course we have limits. Every human does. I’m not denying that those of us with chronic conditions often have more restrictions than those who don’t, but the trick is to uncover which of our limits are concrete versus those that can ultimately be overcome.
Try this: every time you notice yourself saying or thinking, “I can’t _____,” challenge the assumption that you just made, with the assumption that gains towards that goal might be slow. If your “I can’t” is running a marathon, start by daring yourself to run a mile. You might be surprised.
Discover what you love.
If you’ve ever met me, you know I love mountains. For me, the motivation to climb and adventure in them is the greatest intrinsic pleasure possible. I also can’t say no to the prospect of a long run. But like many of my friends you might think I’m crazy. If that’s you, perhaps try one of the other countless ways of getting up off the couch: yoga, Zumba, weight lifting, cardio machines, swimming, team sports, rock climbing, adventure runs, even something as simple as walking around a nearby park, perhaps even with a latte in hand.
Find what works for you and do it.
Try this: If you don’t have friends who can invite you along to their activities, Meetup.com is a fantastic way of connecting with groups of people who can initiate you into their hobbies. You might also discover great sites depending on the particular activity in which you are interested.
If you have chronic pain, there are going to be days that you don’t feel like moving. Especially at the end of a full day of putting up with my headache, what I really want to do most is curl on my couch with a blanket and mind-numbing TV (and I’ll admit it, all too often I do). Here’s where things get tricky. Some days, you need to make yourself get up anyway. It’s all too easy for one day off from running (or other activity) to turn into two or five days and then two weeks. The more you are inactive, the harder on your body both physically and mentally. I’ve found it is far easier to maintain momentum of training than overcome the lethargy I feel after resting too long. After all, if your condition is chronic like mine, you can’t wait until you are 100% better because you never will be.
Conversely, some days, you need to give yourself a break. Only you can decide where that line is.
Try this: If you have a work-out planned but are having a particularly rough day, make a bargain with yourself. Put on your work-out clothes, go the gym/trail/pool/park, and exercise for at least ten minutes. Start slowly and ease into it. If after those ten minutes the pain is still too much, stop.
Miss a week of work outs? A month? A year? Remind yourself that staying active while dealing with pain is no easy feat. Forgive yourself and begin again.