This is a bit of a long post, but a twitter user inspired me to write it, and as I wrote I had so many ideas that I couldn't leave out! They reached out asking how I would tackle increasing, and maintaining fitness levels with a syndrome called chronic fibromyalgia. Completely unheard of to me, I decided to research into it, and upon doing this, I found not only is this quite a common condition, but I myself, and I'm sure many others, have suffered the individual symptoms such as fatigue, muscle stiffness, sleeping difficulties and IBS, and although I'm no GP, a little advice can often go a long way. It must be noted that as with any condition you may suffer with, you should speak to your GP and physiotherapist before engaging in any exercise routines.
Illness can be a killer of both motivation and fitness levels, from a mere cold, to something more acute or chronic. As we speak, I'm recovering from a flu, and after five days of lying in bed and barely hitting 3,000 steps, I already know my fitness levels will be at risk. Since exercise is so important for a healthy lifestyle, some people (myself included) can feel demotivated after or during any kind of illness. It can be horrible knowing you're not as fit as you were two months ago, or you can no longer run that mile in the same time, so I've put together some advice to help you firstly, regain fitness levels, and secondly, maintain a positive mindset:
It's okay to have slipped behind
Noticing and accepting that you're not up to the standard you once were is difficult. A couple of months ago I ran 5K in 27 minutes, my fastest time to date, and now, I'm struggling to run 5K at all, never mind in a sub-30 time. Over the past 6 weeks, I unintentionally took a break from running, I went abroad, then felt constantly fatigued, then I caught a flu, and although it sounds like I'm making excuses, my body just wasn't ready to perform to how it once could. The hardest part of this was accepting it. I had to accept that my body needed the time, and I had to accept that I'd need slowly get myself back up to standard. Remaining positive in your mind will honestly excel your fitness levels and your ability to reach your goals. The amount of times I've had a negative outlook for a couple of weeks and have flopped in fitness and at the gym is unreal. Tell yourself it's okay to be where you are, and reward yourself when you do well – always stay positive!
Tackle sleep problems head on
Like many others, I struggle with sleep. I wake up at least three times a night and panic like mad if I don't fall asleep within ten minutes – then I know it'll be a long night with a joyous two hours sleep! I used to write off exercise the following day if I'd struggled with sleep the previous night, but as I began to exercise more, I eventually found you feel more energised exercising after a bad nights sleep. Don't get me wrong, I can't do my standard exercise routine, and when I start feeling tired, I know it's time to leave the gym. Following a bad night's sleep, my routine will usually involve; slow (5.5-6.0kph), uphill walking (10-15% incline) for around 20-30 minutes followed by body-weight / light-weight exercises (I usually decide to do core and shoulders on these days as they're the least strenuous, 3-4 sets of each). If you have access to a swimming pool, I would also recommend a twenty minute light-intensity / moderate-intensity swim at the end. It's also important to tackle the problem at the centre. Sleep is again important for so many things, and there are various techniques you can try for better sleeping habits. In recent years, I've found that it helps to; stop eating three-four hours before bed, avoid caffeine (I actually stop drinking any caffeine at around 4pm), removing the clock from the room (this is probably me being weird but, the ticking distracts me and knowing the time if I'm struggling to sleep just makes things worse) and having a normal bed-time routine.
Having a goal is the most motivational thing you can do if you want to increase your fitness levels, but make sure it's realistic. Your goal doesn't necessarily have to be a time or a distance, it can be completing some sort of exercise five times a week or signing up to a gym or exercise class. A goal that is too hard to achieve will put you off when you realise it's too much of a challenge. For me personally, I've decided that my goals will be; to be able to squat 60kg again, to run another 5K in under thirty minutes, and to swim at least once a week. If you're new or just getting back into exercise some goals you could try are; running a mile in 10-12 minutes, walking a mile in 14 minutes, swimming half a mile without stopping, using dumbbells whilst completing muscular exercises, walking a nearby hill etc. There's so many options, you just have to chose what's right for you and your current level of fitness, and as you reach your goals, you can easily adjust them by taking time off, increasing the distance or climbing an even bigger hill!
Push yourself, but not too much
When you suffer with illnesses, you'll have your good days and your bad days. It's important to let your body rest if you physically don't feel up to it, but by slowly engaging in exercise, it can often have a positive overall impact on your health, and maybe even alleviate symptoms.
You should primarily be focusing on aerobic exercise and resistance/strengthening workouts. Aerobic workouts are low to moderate exercises which you are capable of sustaining over long periods, for some this may be a fast walk, for others it can be a gentle jog. Aerobic workouts are fantastic for improving overall fitness, they strengthen your heart and burn fat at the same time. Personally, I would recommend using some sort of fitness tracker / heart rate monitor so you're able to track your workouts. After some time, you'll notice that your heart rate begins to fall whilst doing a particular exercise. At this point, your fitness levels are improving as your body becomes accustomed to fast walking or light jogging and you'll be able to push yourself a little more to ensure you're still effectively working out. For me, I aim to do 60-120 minutes every day of aerobic exercises – this includes my walk into work, a walk at lunch, a gentle run at the gym and any other errands I may have. Whilst this may not be doable for everybody, I'd recommend at least 30 minutes of fast walking daily, although it really depends what you can manage. Other alternatives to walking may be cycling, swimming or light rowing.
For the strengthening exercises, I'm going to compile my favourite exercises for each muscle group. On resistance machines, or whilst using free-weights, you will need to experiment to find the right weight for you. I'd always recommend 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps for new starters, and the advice I like to follow (thank you trainer at my gym) for finding the correct weight is: The first set should be easily doable. Set two is a bit harder, by rep 10 you're starting to struggle to the end and well set three, after about rep 8 you're using all your strength to fight to rep 12. Remember to always take a sufficient rest period between each set, I take around 3-5 minutes. Here are my favourite exercises in the order in which I complete them:
Cycle 1 – Shoulders and core
- Weighted crunches
- Barbell military press
- Russian twists
- Side lateral raise
- Dumbbell / kettlebell side bend – 8-12 reps on each side
- Hanging leg raise / Parallel bars (easier)
- Front raise
- Upright barbell row
Cycle 2 – Legs
- Leg press
- Kettlebell swing
- Calf raises – aim for 15-20 reps for this exercise
- Box jumps
- Dumbbell lunges
Cycle 3 – Back and biceps
- Assisted pull-up/pull-ups
- Seated cable row
- Standing biceps cable curl
- Lat pulldown
- Bicep curl over bench - 8-12 reps on each arm
- Rear delt raise
- Hammer curls
- One-arm dumbbell row - 8-12 reps on each arm
- Incline dumbbell curl
Cycle 4 – Chest and triceps
- Chest press
- Cable crossover
- Tricep kickbacks – 8-12 reps on each arm
- Tricep overhead cable extension
- Incline dumbbell bench press
- Assisted dips / dips
- Dumbell pull-over
- Tricep pushdown
Complete each cycle three times / or do three sets of each exercise. Remember to alternate your days, do not do a cycle two days in a row and try and leave at least three days between each cycle! I've also linked all the above exercises up to show you what they are, and how to complete them correctly!
I hope this post has helped those who are struggling to make a start. Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be writing about my day of tackling working 9 hours, eating healthy and exercising all in one following my stint off ill from the gym which will again include my workout plan for the day, so if you're interested, keep a look out on here or social media.