The Age - Health - Weight Connection: What to Do When Exercise Seems Impossible

We all know that exercise plays an important role in maintaining our health. But what do you do when it's health issues that are preventing you from exercising? What if you have chronic pain? I can relate to both of those questions and in the third installment of the Age-Health-Weight Connection series, I'd like to share how I incorporate exercise into my life.

Age-Health-Weight Connection: What To Do When Exercise Seems Impossible

(Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended as medical advice. If you are experiencing symptoms, you should seek a professional opinion from a medical doctor. If you have medical conditions, you should consult your doctor before beginning any new diet/exercise program.)

(This post may contain affiliate links which were added to make it easier for you to find the items. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). You are free to use the links or not - if you do, I thank you!)

If you've read my post, The Aging-Health-Weight Connection (and how to deal with it!), then you know my story. I'm 57 and I have had several health issues over the past eight years. Some have left me with chronic pain, while others have temporarily made it impossible for me to exercise.

If you can relate to what I've said so far, I see you. Those of you with arthritis, chronic back pain, insulin resistance, and all of those other health issues that sometimes make just getting out of bed a major accomplishment. I know what it feels like to just want to lie in bed because that's where your pain is at the lowest level. I know what it feels like to gingerly get out of that bed and tiptoe your way through your morning routine of washing your face and brushing your teeth - all the while hoping that you don't move in a way that will worsen the pain or cause new pain. I acknowledge your pain. And I acknowledge the strength it takes to keep going.

I also see those of you who struggle to lose weight, counting calories only to see the scale move ever so slowly downward - or sometimes to see it even go up. I know what it feels like to be discouraged and think that something must be wrong with you if you can't lose weight like everyone else.

But I'm here to tell you that when you're ready, you can make a change in your lifestyle. It may take some experimenting to discover exactly what works best for you - but you can do it!

One of the most important things that I've discovered since being diagnosed with insulin resistance is that while restricting carbs will help me lose weight and make my lab values better, adding in some exercise makes an even bigger difference. When I bring exercise into the equation, I lose weight much more quickly and more importantly, I feel better. But sometimes exercising can also cause or increase my pain. Sometimes just the thought of exercising is more than I can bear. Have you ever felt that way?

First, I would say: Do NOT compare yourself or your progress to anyone else. It's not a contest. It's about you being the best you possible. Your friend is going to the gym and doing major workouts six days/week and you're "only" walking a mile three days/week? If that's your limit, then Good. For. You. Some days will include exercising and some days won't. No guilt. No regrets. Do you remember my mantra? Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.

So what do I do when I'm having pain, but would like to exercise? It depends upon the pain. I have to listen to my body.

Evaluate your pain prior to exercise

Before exercising, I ask myself a series of questions. Where does it hurt? Does my knee hurt today? Then I need to wear my knee brace and ice my knee afterwards. Is my patellar tendon aching? Better wear my patellar tendon strap. Does my back hurt? Then I need to apply heat and do a careful warm-up as well as apply ice and maybe the TENS unit when I'm finished. Do I have a headache? I'll do some slow walking and reevaluate during the exercise. Sometimes walking makes it feel better. If I'm having pain in multiple areas, I wait for a better day. That happens to me when we have a lot of rain - it hurts to change positions, walk, sit, stand - so I just skip exercising until I feel better. No guilt, no regrets.

Continue to monitor during the exercise

Once I start the exercise, I continue to monitor my body. Is swinging my arms making my shoulder and neck hurt? Then I'll put my hand in my pocket to rest my arm. Does my hip hurt? Or maybe my ankle? Then I need to slow my pace until it feels better (or stop if it doesn't). Another important thing for me is wearing the right shoes. I wear a 1/4" lift in my left shoe and my shoes need to have decent support. Nike Tanjuns are my favorite shoe for everyday wear around the house, but they let my feet slide around too much to be comfortable when I'm walking for exercise. My favorite walking shoes are the Ryka Sky. I have a pair of KEEN Koven Mid hiking boots that I wear if I'm walking on uneven ground because they offer better ankle support - and they're also amazingly comfortable. I wore them last week when we hiked around the woods in Gatlinburg and also when we made the climb to Clingmans Dome.

Choose the exercise that works best for you

My favorite form of exercise is walking. I can pretty much do it anywhere, it doesn't cost anything, and it usually doesn't make me feel worse. I prefer to walk outside, but if it's too hot or my allergies are bad, I have a treadmill. My doctors have suggested swimming since it's easier on joints. Unfortunately, I don't swim, but that's a great option and may work for you. I'm able to use a recumbent bicycle, but I don't have one at home and I rarely go to the gym with Gus (gyms aren't my thing). I'm considering purchasing one if I can figure out where to put it. But the important thing isn't which form of exercise you're doing, it's that you're moving more than usual!

Focus on the positive

Only you know where you hurt and what makes it better/worse. You'll need to monitor your body as you try different exercises to see what works best for you. Maybe you can only do exercises while sitting in a chair - that's okay. Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow and then you can do more. I know that even when I'm feeling my best, I can't walk any faster than 3.2 mph. If I do, it makes my left hip hurt (I have scoliosis, and my left leg is 1/4" shorter than the right, so even with a lift in my shoe, walking too fast can throw my stride off). I don't compare myself to people who can run 10 miles or spend two hours at the gym. I just think back to the day(s) when I couldn't do anything and give thanks that today I was able to walk two miles. Focus on the positive.

But how much exercise do you need?

The American Heart Association recommends a minimum of 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week and moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days/week. Moderate-intensity includes activities such as walking at least 2.5 mph, water aerobics, biking (slower than 10 mph), dancing, and even gardening. You should be able to talk without getting out of breath. For a lot of people, all of that sounds perfectly reasonable. But for those with chronic pain or other health issues, it can sound next to impossible! And don't even get me started on the "get your 10,000 steps/day" craze.

It's a rare day when I can do 10,000 steps - and when I do, I will have more pain. I have my Fitbit step goal as 8,000/day which is much more attainable for me. And isn't that what your tracking device should do for you - give you positive reinforcement for meeting your goal? Don't set an unattainable goal and get discouraged. Studies have shown that simply increasing your current daily steps by 2,000 will help lower your body mass index and boost your insulin sensitivity. So even small increases can make a difference!

Barring any injuries, my body usually cooperates with 20-30 minutes 4-5 days/week. At my best, I can do 30-40 minutes 5-6 days/week. But there are times when I can only do 20 minutes 3 days/week. That's okay. I'm doing as much as I'm able to do. And you know what? Sometimes I can't do anything at all. And that's okay, too. The trick is to know when your body will tolerate a little more and when you need to let it rest. No guilt. No regrets. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.

Don't forget: Exercise can be modified for your specific situation. Maybe you need to sit while you do some upper body stretches or bicep curls. That's okay! Shaun T - has several videos on Facebook where he demonstrates modifications to exercise. You can also search on YouTube for exercises for your specific challenge (back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, etc.). Don't give up!

And don't forget to grab my free printables for tracking your progress!

I'd love to hear from you! Tell me about your situation - where you struggle, how you've made positive changes - or ask me any questions. You can leave a comment here or find me on social media! 


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