I’ve learned how important it is to be gentle with myself for not being able to do what my former self could.
A year ago, I was on the most incredible trip, watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon with my husband. It was so special and something I will remember forever, especially because it is the last trip I took before becoming very ill.
The moment I came home, I started feeling sick with an ulcerative colitis flare-up. Since then, I have been battling this year-long inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) flare-up and fighting for my health.
Leading up to the flare-up, I was in the best shape of my life. I was attending yoga and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes every week, and overall feeling very fit, strong, and energized.
In an effort to feel like myself, I tried to keep exercising for the first couple of months of the flare-up, but I just could not keep up with my former workout schedule.
While I did make sure to walk every day to keep my body moving, I didn’t have the energy for strength training, neither weights nor bodyweight movements, and slowly saw a decline in my strength and endurance.
An ulcerative colitis flare-up may cause malabsorption, malnutrition, and severe dehydration, which can lead to weakness and fatigue.
Knowing and feeling this, avoiding strength training was a wise decision. However, it was difficult to watch myself lose the muscle composition that I had worked so hard to build.
I had been listening to my body very closely this entire healing journey, for what it needed more of and what it needed less of.
When I finally started seeing an improvement in my symptoms, I began to increase the length and frequency of my daily walks to see how my body would handle that small increase in exercise.
Once I felt confident that my body could handle more low-impact cardio, I knew that it was time to start rebuilding my muscle again.
As someone very passionate about fitness, this realization was exciting. I’m pretty sure I skipped down the sidewalk that day.
My body had been working so hard to recover from attacking itself, so I knew it was important to take it slow.
I know this well because I have jumped back into high-intensity workouts after a flare-up many times before and I always end up sick again. After being sick for a full year, I did not want to be sick again.
Plus, I had been spending a lot of time in bed or on the couch and needed to gently remind my body how to exercise again.
So, even though I so desperately craved a high-intensity group fitness class, that meant the (virtual) HIIT and CrossFit classes that I loved weren’t in the cards quite yet.
Here are the tips that I followed while exercising at home to rebuild strength and feel fit again:
Focus on low-impact cardio
Start with gentle cardio to get your body moving again, then add other exercises after that. I recommend walking, riding a bike, swimming, or gentle yoga.
Add in short bodyweight workouts
Once your body gets accustomed to gentle movement, gradually add in bodyweight movements once or twice a week. I started with 10 to 15 minutes of bodyweight exercises, 2 times each week.
Avoid jumping movements
In my experience, jumping movements, like box jumps or jumping lunges, are too taxing on the joints and nervous system in the beginning.
I recommend leaving those out until you are fully in remission and have been consistently exercising for a few months.
Keep reps low with plenty of time for rest
Our bodies need time to remember how to do each movement, so I started with a low number of repetitions in each workout.
I also allowed myself more rest time in between sets to breathe and recover before moving on to the next set or movement.
The last thing I needed was an injury on top of my flare-up, so I went really slowly and focused on proper form for each rep.
Going slow allows you to still get in a good workout, even though you are doing fewer reps. Trust me, it still burns in the best way possible.
Modify when needed
When you can’t go into a full movement, like a squat or a pushup, go as far as you can while maintaining proper form, and then come back up. Once you begin to regain your strength, you can try doing the full movement again.
Recovering from a year-long flare-up was — and still is — a long road.
I am continuing to take it one day at a time, listening to my body and how I feel each day, and acting accordingly.
If I have learned anything from this journey of regaining my health and my strength, it is this: Be gentle with yourself for not being able to do what your former self could, rest when you need to rest, and never stop fighting for your health.
You’ve got this.
Holly Fowler lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their fur child, Kona. She loves hiking, spending time at the beach, trying the latest gluten-free hot spot in town, and working out as much as her ulcerative colitis allows. When she isn’t seeking out gluten-free vegan dessert, you can find her working behind the scenes of her website and Instagram, or curled up on the couch bingeing the latest true-crime documentary on Netflix.