Let’s talk about exercise and autoimmunity, shall we?
I grew up as a child, teenager and young adult whose second home was the dance studio, for anywhere from 4-6 hours/day, 5 days a week.
I LOVED being active, and still do! Breaking a sweat, working hard, and feeling like Jell-O at the end of a rewarding dance class were feelings I lived for!
As I transitioned out of dancing at that intensity in my mid-to-late twenties, a few years after being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition (Ulcerative Colitis), I ventured into enjoying other forms of fitness, whether it was Zumba, my own gym workouts (cardio and strength training) or hot Ashtanga yoga.
I could tell, in my 20s, once managing autoimmunity on a daily basis, that it was becoming more challenging to keep up with the types of exercise I enjoyed the most. My Immune System was probably taking a beating with each high-intensity workout I chose to pursue, but I LOVED the activities I was doing. It was a challenging realization to both acknowledge and accept that perhaps they were no longer the most suitable types of activities for my circumstances. To compensate, I ensured I got the best sleep possible the few nights prior to the workout, as well as for the few nights following the workout.
Part of the problem was, high-intensity exercise in the evening, after a full day of work, left my body fired up for hours to follow. My body and mind wouldn’t be ready to fall asleep when I needed them to, despite being physically tired. As a result, I was so tired the next morning, which made for a hard day the day after, especially if a work day! The delayed onset muscle soreness would bog me down for a couple of days, before I would feel renewed and more strong, resuming my ‘normal’.
The thing is, regular, high-intensity workouts and autoimmunity do not go hand-in-hand. When the Immune System is already not functioning as it is intended to, high-intensity workouts, especially chronically-occurring ones, over-stimulate the Immune System and send it into overdrive.
We have to remember that exercise is incredible for your body, mind and spirit, but it is still stress on your body. If managing autoimmunity of any sort, even if you’re not actively flaring and your symptoms in remission, as in my case, the frequency, duration and intensity of your exercise choices still need to be navigated in a strategic, personalized way.
Furthermore, if you’re managing tired/depleted adrenal glands, the small but mighty glands that sit on top of your kidneys that are responsible for secreting the hormones involved in the stress response (i.e. our stress hormone, cortisol), chronic, high-intensity workouts are going to deplete these glands even further, as the intensity is just too much. After a high-intensity workout, you may feel particularly exhausted, rather than energized, and the body will have a more challenging time bouncing back.
The adrenal glands secrete cortisol in response to stress of any type, and if they continue to be demanded to secrete cortisol and start having trouble keeping up, we either have chronically-high levels of cortisol circulating in the body, or so much is secreted that levels eventually just flatten out and we don’t have enough to combat our stressors any longer. This is known as 'burnout'!
Since elevated cortisol levels in the body have the body going into protective mode, the body holds onto fat content as a protective mechanism to help combat stress. Therefore, weight management might prove to become more challenging when hormonal levels become imbalanced this manner.
So, as you can see, this is all very interconnected. Regular, high-intensity workouts are unfortunately not for everyone.
At the present, when I do a high-intensity workout for an hour (i.e. barre), it’s pretty onerous for me to get through and I really have to push through it. I feel pretty energized right after, but I definitely feel more and more tired as the day unfolds and for the 2-3 days after. My recovery time is longer than it likely would be otherwise, and since I need to space out this type of workout several days apart at a time, to not run my body completely down, not being able to attend those workouts more frequently means my body takes a harder hit when I do get there. If there’s anything I’ve learned, the workouts are just too intense for me, regardless of how much I’d love to be able to continue with them.
Instead, I know for a fact that I need to opt for forms of exercise where I am in complete control of the bouts of intensity, and how many sets and reps that I do, where applicable. I need to be able to listen to my body and respond accordingly, pacing myself at a rate suitable for me.
So, what do you do?
I highly recommend considering the dialling back of these types of workouts and evaluating the type, frequency, duration and intensity of the forms of exercise you choose to pursue, to best align with your unique health needs. And, start to really pay attention to how you feel in the moments after, hours after and days after you complete high-intensity workouts. Your body will tell you whether it’s suffering or not, via how you feel and how efficiently you recover.
Mix things up between light/gentle activity and moderate-intensity activity, and consider how much of your activity can happen outdoors, as being outdoors provides you fresh air, vitamin D, a sense of calmness and is naturally hormone-balancing.
Getting outdoors first thing in the morning after you wake-up, whenever possible, helps set your sleep and wake cycle. By exposing your body to daylight in and around the same time every day, this habit supports your hormonal rhythm.
Personally, I LOVE to go for a hike in my neighbourhood ravine (right across the street from my home!) first thing every morning, especially now that the most ideal weather of the year is upon us!
Climbing hills throughout the ravine naturally provides me some interval training, as my heart rate really heightens, I break a sweat and feel the burn in my legs and butt! As the hills level out, I have the opportunity to lower my heart rate and catch my breath! After my hike, I spend some further time outdoors doing some jumping jacks, lunges or squats, some plank-based exercises, and a variety of stretches (i.e. quads, calves). My cool-down is walking back to my home (no hills involved)!
When I get home, I do some abdominal work, cat-cow exercises, upper body (arm/chest/back) strengthening exercises and some further stretching. And, I love to deepen particular stretches by stretching in my hot shower that follows!
For me, this is the perfect way to start my day and ensure I fit the exercise in, and with self-isolation right now, there’s no excuse! I ensure this workout is not identical from day to day, by switching up the types of exercises that follow the hike, targeting different muscle groups each day with different weight-bearing exercises.
Beyond hikes, my cardio might be composed of alternating bouts of jogging with walking, a long bike ride or some skipping. I also love to swim and skate, depending on the season and what seems to be most logical at the time.
By engaging in this activity earlier in the day, I give my body plenty of time to come down from the stimulation by the time I hit the pillow at night.
I also love attending a 60-75 minute warm yin yoga class weekly – this is the ‘yin’ to the ‘yang’ (i.e. cardio and strength training), where I have the opportunity to stretch deeply into the connective tissues of the body, to release muscle tension, lengthen my muscles, engage in slow, deep, cleansing breathing and reset my Nervous System – the ultimate stress release!
I particularly enjoy warm yin yoga at nighttime, prior to heading to bed, as the session so greatly relaxes my body and mind. A warm Epsom salts bath, following, further supports relaxation, in preparation for a deep sleep to follow!
I hope this post inspires you to evaluate what you’re presently doing for exercise if you’re managing autoimmunity, including that of Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, like that of my client base. Instead of potentially hopping on the bandwagon with what everyone else seems to be doing, ditch what might not be serving your state of health and wellness and unique needs, in favour of light and moderate-intensity options that don't overstimulate your Immune System and run it down completely. When we run ourselves down and the circumstances don't exist to properly recover, we know how easily we become susceptible to acute forms of illness (i.e. cough, cold, flu and infection).
While it’s hard to leave activities behind that just aren’t working for you, despite how much you love them, there’s such an abundance of activity options out there! It just takes exploring them further, to discover what you love most as you move through different stages of your life!
Send me a message if this resonates with you! I’d love to hear from you, and learn what’s working for you!