In October 2016 I was finally diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis after an 8 week battle in and out of emergency. I felt the relief that I could finally get healthy again and back into my training, however I didn’t realise the extent I would have to change my goals, plans and diet to continue leading an active lifestyle and progress in the gym. Fast forward a year and I’m back on track, currently in the best shape of my life. I owe it to experimentation, consistency, and the willingness to explore new avenues and listen to other people. This piece will discuss some of the things I learned along the way, and how I approached my fitness goals for success.
Ulcerative Colitis along with most other auto-immune or chronic conditions are very personal and their effects vary amongst the community. Two things that seem to have the most profound impact on the majority of sufferers are diet and stress, coincidentally the two things that most people struggle with. Stress can be formed as a physical response to activity ie. through performing heavy lifting or long distance running, which when added to the stresses of daily life can cause an overload and magnify the effects of our conditions. Managing these stresses is one of the most important steps to formulating a strategy for health and fitness as someone with a chronic condition, due to how detrimental the effects can be.
Planning (or not planning) for stress:
Stress is oftentimes an uncontrollable variable in our training, whether it be due to work overload, personal relationships or financial burdens. However, adding more training stimulus to already high levels of stress is a surefire way to flare up your condition. Before planning your fitness program you need to evaluate how stressful your life is and will be in the short term future. If you lead a life without much stress then training volume and intensity can be increased higher than someone who does have a lot of stress in their daily life. Ideally this stress could be planned for, with programming adjusted to suit – but stress doesn’t work as consistently as we do! This is why people with a chronic condition must be able to have some form of accountable flexibility in their training. This means they need to be able to scale back training when faced with external stressors in order to not overload, but also don’t use this as an excuse for slacking off.
As well as adjusting training stimulus on the fly to manage stress, both forms of stress can be reduced through multiple techniques. Everyone has heard the numerous ways to de-stress from daily life: yoga, meditation, reading a book, taking a vacation… All these methods will work and are valid, however most people won’t see results from all of them. My suggestion is following the mantra of everything in dealing with chronic conditions – TRY. EVERYTHING. When talking about quality of life we really must try every possible method until we find something that works, and then stick with that consistently. The other less talked about stress from physical exertion must be managed through proper recovery.
Some easy and minimal cost options for recovery include:
- Sleep – Sleeping 8 hours a night really does have a massive impact on recovery and how your body feels in general, putting it at the top of the list for recovery methods.
- Physio or Chiro – Finding a physio or chiro in your area that can work out those tight muscles, knots and strains can be a godsend – especially if covered on your health care.
- Massage – Massage is a less effective method for working out the kinks, however it can be a cheaper option and also aids in removing some of the other external stress from daily life making it a great 2-in-1 method.
- Ice/contrast baths – Yes they suck, but they’re worth it! Ice baths or contrast baths where you go back and forth spending time between a hot shower/bath and an ice bath/cold shower have been proven to speed up muscle recovery and reduce muscle soreness after hard exercise. A cheap method for an ice bath is filling a wheelie bin with water and a few bags of ice. Another alternative with similar affect is early morning beach swimming, which is very popular with football clubs due to its ease of accessibility.
- Self muscle release – Popularised by YouTube fitness sensations foam rolling can be an effective method of recovery, if used properly! Simply rolling around on a roller for a few minutes will do very little to ease muscle pain and tightness. The method I use for muscle release is to focus on the sore or tight muscle, rolling on it until I find a painful spot. Once I find that spot I let my body-weight push into the roller until the pain reaches a level of roughly 7/10, and I then hold it there for a minute while sometimes rocking back and forth slightly. I then move on to the next sore spot. This method is less fun, but much more effective.
There are many other forms of recovery you can try, but some can end up costing a pretty penny over time. Cryotherapy has been popularised recently, showing major improvements to sufferers of Fibromyalgia in particular. This treatment can get expensive, especially at the rate sufferers would need to visit in order to see the prolonged benefits. Just like methods to combat daily life stresses, recovery methods vary in effectiveness from person to person – and the main objective is to try as many as possible to see what works for you.
The key takeaway from this article is that in order to create an effective strategy for your fitness goals post diagnosis, your lifestyle must be evaluated and there will be more considerations than ever before. Daily life stress and physical exertion stress must both be managed in order to reach your goals without overloading, hitting roadblocks and potentially flaring up your condition. When planning a program, have a bit of flexibility and realise that our conditions do put limitations on how much we can do each day – but they don’t limit our commitment to getting fitter and healthier.
– Brad McAuliffe