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Movement: Do what you can, when you can

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

I have been active for as long as I can remember. I started playing softball when I was 4, and continued to play 3 sports until I graduated from high school. In my undergraduate and graduate school years, I took up running, and gradually worked my way up to running half marathons. Once I got out into the “real world” of working, I took up road biking, and I eventually found myself training for events such as the Ride Across Indiana and the One Day Ride Across Michigan. My husband and I would go on long day hikes, sometimes up to 10 miles.

When I started to notice a decline in my ability to train and recover from exercise, I just kept trying to push through it, thinking I just didn’t eat right or hydrate enough, etc. My ability and my desire to continue exercising at my “usual” rate continued to decline, until I finally found out why late last year. In that time of decline and since my diagnosis of Lyme and several co-infections, I’ve been forced to dive deeper into ways to keep moving, even on the hardest days, because this has always been so important to my physical, mental, and spiritual wellness.

I’ve had to change my mindset from “what do I want to do today,” to “what is my body telling me it needs today?” We so often ignore what our bodies are telling us, chronic illness or not. Learning to truly listen to your body is an exercise in itself, and it often initially feels like a blow to the ego, especially if we’re not living up to our “normal” exercise expectations. I want to share a few activities that have kept me moving/exercising, both from a physical standpoint and a mind-body connection standpoint. I’m just going to highlight them here, as I could probably do a specific post on each topic.

I want to start with breathing. Working on breath can be a significant game-changer both in how you feel physically but also emotionally. It can bring calm to the storm going on in your body, or it can bring stimulation on those days when you just can’t get motivated. As a physical therapist and yoga instructor, I like to make sure patients/clients are able to correctly perform diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called deep belly breathing). It tends to be calming, which can help those with chronic illness better deal with anxiety, and it can also help with your body’s pain response. A few other types of breathing include alternate nostril breathing, lion’s breath, breath of fire, and ujjayi breath. Sometimes when you feel like you cannot do anything else physically, just working on breathwork while lying in bed can help get you through. There are many resources on YouTube and many books available to read on these topics if you’re interested.

A lot of people talk about the benefits of yoga for those with chronic illness. Honestly, I used to do yoga mainly for the physical benefits I thought it brought me, mainly strength and flexibility, and to challenge my body to see what it could really do. Again, sometimes changing your perspective is necessary, and exploring types of yoga practice that you would’ve never done prior to your illness is important. For me, I can no longer tolerate the power or regular vinyasa flow type classes. I look more for the slow flow, yin, and restorative type classes, and have also been doing more chair yoga than anything recently. There are also yoga sequences that can be done lying in bed, which can be great for those days that you want to move but just cannot get yourself out of bed. You can do your movement, then take your nap afterward.

People are also talking more and more about mindfulness/meditation. I think of this as exercise for the mind to help my body heal. It can be so helpful in dealing with anxiety, pain, focus, and sleep, among other benefits. You don’t have to sit or lay for an hour to start this. All you need is a minute, really, and you can build from there if you wish. You can set an alarm on your phone or other device to remind you to do this first thing in the morning, at lunchtime, before bed, or whenever it’s convenient, because otherwise it’s easy to just skip it and do other things instead. There are apps you can use (examples: Headspace & Insight Timer are 2 I’ve used), plenty of examples online, and many books you can get that have simple meditations in them if you don’t know where/how to start. Regularity is key, and patience with yourself is needed, but this is such a great way to learn to just “listen” and not “do.”

A few final ideas on movement… On the days you’re really struggling, maybe think about doing some basic bed mobility as your exercise. Work on rolling from side to side a few times, then maybe side to stomach, back to your other side, etc. Think about how babies “exercise,” and how patients recovering from surgeries first move. We can all go back to these “primitive” so to speak movements and benefit from them. Maybe sit on the side of the bed and just work on standing up and sitting down a couple of times. If you’re having trouble walking, crawl. It sounds silly, and it might feel silly, but it’s movement, and it gets you where you need to go. Finally, slow, mindful walks have been a saving grace for me. I am known as the ”sloth” in my family when we go for walks together. Sometimes I make it to the mailbox and back (maybe ~1000ft), sometimes I make it a mile, but I go at my own pace, and I make an effort to listen to the sounds, feel the breeze, and look around and take in the sights. Everyone seems to be in a hurry anymore. Something chronic illness has taught me is, “what’s the hurry?” Listen to your body and go at your own pace. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and get creative to keep your body moving as you go through your healing journey…

The information shared on this page is for informational purposes only, it is opinion and should not be taken as medical advice. Always consult your medical provider for medical advice and before starting any new treatment.

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