Back when I was at my worst with ME, I would lie in bed, unable to move very much at all, and I would daydream about being one of those women who lifted weights, did a load of cardio until her cool, Sweaty Betty gym kit was saturated with sweat and was in peak physical form.
Which was weird.
Why was this weird? Well because I've never been a very 'physical exercise' kinda gal. Yes, before the dreaded ME struck, I did some yoga and some boxing to maintain some sort of healthy lifestyle, but honestly, from an early age, I was just not really on speaking terms with hardcore exercise.
I was the slightly chubby kid who hated P.E. at school, and would do anything to avoid running round the sports field or playing hockey. I detested anything that required stamina, and breaking a sweat was not something I planned to do very often if I could help it.
But after a few years of having ME, I became a bit obsessed with what I couldn't now do. and what I feared I might never be able to do.
I would lie there in bed, my weak muscles feeling like poison had been injected into them, barely able to make the ten steps to the bathroom, but dreaming of becoming this super-fit woman who would train hard, push herself to the max, and have the glutes and biceps to prove it. As I lay there, I'd be on Instagram, following accounts like GymGlutes, FitnessGirlsMotivation, Six-PackFemmes and ButtWorkoutVids (yes, really), well aware of the irony of my prevailing predicament.
Well, here I am in July 2018, and I am now 'one of those women'. Sure I'm still a bit chubby (some things never change), but I am back at the gym with a vengeance - doing 90 minute sessions four or five times a week, including 50 minutes of cardio (proper cardio - breaking a sweat, getting out of breath and everything!), and lifting weights. And you know what? I LOVE it! The high points so far are May this year when I managed 19 sessions in one month, and last Saturday, when I achieved my biggest session yet of 2098 moves and 906 calories burnt.
So what is my message here? That it is possible. Recovery. Not just that old chestnut: 'managing symptoms' (insert eye-roll) or living a knackered, symptomatic half-life, but actual real recovery where you can feel strong and powerful again (or for the first time, like me!).
Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Hell yeah.
In order to get my health back I had to address many areas, and of those, getting my level of physical activity right was so bloody difficult.
Disclaimer alert: This is by no means a guide or suggestion of what to do, but rather just an explanation of the trial and error (mostly error) I went through to try to get my physical activity levels right:
- Before ME: moderate exercise a couple of times a week; ashtanga yoga, boxing, bit of gym.
- When I first fell ill with ME: tried to carry on with the yoga and boxing, ignoring how I felt. Increasingly resulted in relapses where I was bedbound for several days (this went on for a loooooong time).
- Probably a year into ME: Stopped persisting with ashtanga and boxing, started doing some gentle hatha and small walks when I could. Still hadn't got the hang of listening to my body so pushed myself too far much of the time, resulting in (you guessed it) more relapses.
- Maybe a year or so later: Still doing some gentle hatha and small walks when I could, better at listening to my body. By now utterly terrified of provoking a relapse so going for weeks or months with no physical activity at all to avoid 'poking the bear'. This was the longest phase by far.
- Roughly a year before full recovery I guess: Finally I had learnt to properly listen to my body. Finally understood what that meant. Finally realised that if I was to get my body into a healing state, I had to heed its warnings, and stop pushing it the very second it told me to. If this involved spending a whole yoga class lying down on my mat - so be it.
- At about 90% recovered: Exceptionally cautious about exerting myself. started going to the gym, but would not dare do anything that made me out of breath or that would cause my muscles to ache. Started using weight machines with the lowest weight settings just to get used to the movement.
- Just after I had recovered: Started doing cardio that made me a bit out of breath, lifting heavier weights, more reps, more sets.
- Latterly: Built up to 90 minute sessions with stamina-challenging cardio and the heaviest weights I can lift at the reps and sets that I do.
I know now that ME was a message from my body. I had ignored my body's increasingly loud messages for so long that the only way it could make me listen was to take me down and put me on my backside for almost six years.
So what is the take-out from this? The difference now is that I listen to my body. Always. And I respond to it. This is the thing - THE thing - that got me back to full health, and has helped me get my strength and stamina up to beyond where I have ever been before.
So now, I honour my wellbeing above all else, because when you get it back, it is the most incredible feeling.