O Bendy Gymster: On Working Out When Sick

I have to admit, it hasn’t been a great year for illness. When I look at the timeline, it’s fairly clear that it correlates very tightly with (1) high levels of stress and (2) an unprecedented level of seasonal depression (hurrah, seasonal affective disorder), which also leads back to (1).

This means that my hefty workout schedule has been interrupted a few times, and I’ve learned a few things from this.

There’s a lot of online advice about when it’s okay to work out when you’re not well, and how much it’s okay to do, and a lot of that advice boils down to whether you’re going to infect people or not (an important consideration), what kind of illness you have, and how you actually feel when it comes down to it. The obvious basic idea is: don’t be really stupid about it, but of course what that means is going to vary.

I learned that, when I took time off from exercise completely, I started to hurt. Muscles tightened. Joints ached. Everything got harder. When I finally got better, and went back to gym, and started doing physio exercises again, everything felt more difficult and wrong. If I went back into things too fast, like running, I’d injure myself. Now, that’s not surprising – it’s generally recommended you ease back into any exercise routine after a break. It’s more that my reaction was more extreme than most. I need to really ease in.

I need to go from running half an hour continuously back down to five minute intervals. Ugh.

This is because hypermobility is a cruel mistress, and muscles that you’ve worked hard to recruit and activate go to sleep again with very little encouragement. In a minor sense, I need to re-teach my body how to move properly after every break.

I definitely need to take the time to get my muscles to activate and tighten again, because, as I’ve said elsewhere, my ligaments don’t hold my joints in place sufficiently. I need muscle tension (tonus) to do it. If my muscles slack off, I get too bendy, I lose good co-ordination, and then I end up getting an injury, which means more recovery time and more muscle slackness. Nasty cycle.

This means I haven’t made the sort of progress in my fitness that I had hoped to by this point in the year. While my lifts and my running have improved, it’s been very much a saw-toothed progression, and given how hard I work at it, that’s been genuinely frustrating (although I do try to regularly remind myself that any progress is progress, no matter how small).

So over the last two illnesses (ugh, in a month. See earlier comments re: stress), I tried a new plan. Unless I was too sick to stand up, I would very gently mosey through a minimum number of physio exercises.

This worked very well! It meant that when I was well enough to get back to the gym, I didn’t have to reduce volume or intensity very much at all (slight consideration due to the fact that I was on antibiotics so large they would make a donkey pause for thought and a very large glass of water indeed).

But then I got sick again. And physio exercises helped (once I got past the “too dizzy to stand up” phase, which lasted a day or so), but there was a catch.

It was a nasty, flu-like illness, and among the laundry list of symptoms was what I will euphemistically refer to as “gut involvement.”

This meant that, when I wasn’t dizzy or feverish any more (when the fever finally broke and I got to have the magical, wonderful, amazing, glorious post-feverish shower), my core hurt.

And it really hurt. My abdominal muscles had been abused. It felt like I’d spent several hours doing continuous planks and crunches. It was nasty. And it was definitely muscle pain: severe, knifing muscle pain. Every time I sat up from a sitting position, or stood. I worked out a way to half-roll out of bed that would minimise core involvement in that movement.

Most of my physio exercises have a significant amount of core involvement. That’s just part of the management plan for hypermobility – part of posture repair and spine support (yes, my vertebral joints are bendy too). I ran through the workout in my head and figured out I could do… stretches.

That was it.

But I wasn’t as sick. I was definitely in the recovery phase. I tired easily. I was once again a card-carrying citizen of Planet Snot (although there wasn’t much, relatively speaking). My throat ached a bit.

I had enough energy to move and I desperately wanted to. I needed my muscles to activate, because if I didn’t, my body would fall apart before I would have time to get back to gym, and everything would just ache more. I was desperate to avoid the inevitable joint and back pain I get from enforced periods of inactivity, and to be fair, I was also desperate to get out of the house.

So I did something that – apparently – looked a little insane.

For most of my immediate social circle, my gymster habits are considered something of a personal eccentric quirk. For some, the fact that I actively enjoy exercise for its own sake is genuinely mystifying. Occasionally, I’m affectionately referred to as a bit insane for these habits and preferences, and it doesn’t bother me. I feel the same way about people who don’t like cheese (weirdos).

Apparently, going for a very sedate 9km walk when one is under the weather is considered very odd indeed. Following it up with another 8km walk two days later is much the same.

But odd or not, it had definite benefits. I was rugged up tightly, and because I was walking instead of running, it meant I had opportunity to explore trails and paths I don’t usually take. I got to wander up and down various tracks. I saw a herd of about twenty or so kangaroos bounce across my path, less than five metres in front of me.

Roos on parade

Pretty roos all in a row (there were more, but I’m not much of a wildlife photographer).

I looked out over the Sunset Track (after one hell of a climb – that is a steep one).

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View from the Sunset Track. Does not show steep hill (felt like a gravel cliff face!).

For the third walk, I went up to the rainforest – the path is less than ten minutes drive from my house – and took a bushwalk.

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Sherbrooke Forest. Robin Hood nowhere in sight.

Not only did I get to explore, but it also had the desired effect of keeping my leg muscles active and keeping me moving while my poor abused abdominal muscles recovered from their trauma. My joints stayed tight and supported instead of loosening and aching; and when my core recovered and my illness dissipated enough for me to return to gym, it was all back to normal. I could even do my half hour run without having to drop back to intervals.

So yes, sometimes it looks odd when someone exercises through an illness. It looks obsessive, and since exercise disorders are a real thing, it can look worrying. Concern is appreciated for the intent, don’t get me wrong, and I am known for pushing through obstacles sometimes when it might be easier to take a step back; but I don’t apply that to exercise. My body is just too breakable. I treat it like glass.

Alright, fairly tough glass that needs to be thrown around a bit to temper it for the long haul – but glass nonetheless.

Rainforest Living: The Song of the Mountains

 

When we first saw the Mountain Fortress on its Open For Inspection day, we saw a beautifully maintained red cedar house on a sloping hill. From the top of the driveway, on the street, you could look out over it and see the forest and rolling hills laid out before you. The backyard was a wonderland of baby’s tear and moss and ferns, and the front yard was a clean paradise of well-maintained shrubs and flowering plants.

We’d lived in Hurstbridge, another semi-rural environ, for about a year. We’d done the commuting, the work-from-home days, the total-beginner’s-garden-maintenance trial, and we thought, how much harder can it be? Living in a rainforest would not be really different to living in the dry scrub hills of Hurstbridge, surely.

Allow me a moment to point and laugh at my naïve self before I enumerate the special challenges of rainforest living, in no particular order.

We begin with…

Gardening and Yard Work

Out in normal land – the lowlands, the open hills, the suburbs, the towns, what have you – gardening is the art of making things grow, and making them grow where and when you want them to grow. It is, I have heard, a pursuit that will reward patience and hard work, and is a good way for people to enjoy the outdoors in a serene way.

Not so gardening in the rainforest. I can often be heard to say that gardening in the rainforest is in no way about making things grow; it is about trying to stop things from growing. For the love of God, just stop!

The soil in the rainforest is damp and rich and filled with helpful bacteria and worms and other useful critters; it’s basically crack cocaine for plants. Everything grows. Unfortunately, as always, invading species have an unfair advantage, and the first two years of life here was spent waging a very nasty chemical war with the local infestation of Tradescantia (colloquially known as trad or, less comfortably, Wandering Jew). Our property is about a third of an acre, and incredibly steep; we have attracted criticism from nature-friendly folk for our reliance upon weed spray, and when this happens I welcome any volunteers to come and rip this shit up by hand. I will be happy to provide antiseptic for the leech bites should they get out of control.

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See that carpet of green over the fence there? Our entire bottom half of the yard was like that, only under that were all these logs and bits of old broken fencing. Sadly we did not take a picture of the infestation at its height, but this is a stand in.

The trad infestation was so fierce that we seriously considered purchasing a machete just to be able to walk the fence line. Of my Dad, Husband and myself, I was the only person short enough and small enough to actually get through the jungle from one end to the other (to be fair, I am neither short nor small. I suspect that in truth I am simply more flexible than either of them, and there was “limbo” involved). Trad is also slightly toxic to dogs, although the reaction varies. Fortunately, both Amos and Abby only experience a mildly unpleasant rash, and mostly they have learned to stay out of the trad jungle. We finally appear to be winning this war – and not without some bad moments, like watching our much more yard-competent neighbours roll the stuff up like a carpet and stash it away (our yard is much more uneven. I tried rolling it up and fell on my backside several times).

Trad is not the only weed, but it is the nastiest and most persistent. We also have bucketloads of onion grass, English ivy, and – in my opinion – hydrangeas. Oh? What’s that? You like hydrangeas? YOU CAN HAVE MINE. The bastards won’t stop growing, and I think they look ridiculous in a garden full of ferns and mountain ash.

For a little while, my Dad – who is extremely yard-handy – was mystified as to our complete inability to stay on top of the yard work (remembering that our main goal was simply keeping things from going nuts), until he realised that on a typical workday, we would get home about 7:30pm. This does not leave a lot of time for yard work. The only time yard work gets done is on work-from-home days, as this skips out on the city-mountain commute time.

So it is not so simple as “when I get home, I’ll spend twenty minutes raking up the leaves.” Ohhh, no…

Which brings me to another point: power tools.

Power tools are the other major challenge to the rainforest initiate. No doubt you thought the green forest would make you relaxed and mindful, yes? You envisioned sitting out on the balcony enjoying the tweetling sounds of the little birdies and parrots, yes?

Those moments can and do happen.

They do not happen on Saturday morning. We are far from the only couple that commutes to work, and thus far from the only household dependent on weekends for yard work.

Saturday is the time for power tools. The roaring and buzzing and wailing of chainsaws, line-trimmers, pressure washers, leaf blowers and sundry other marvellous items is the weekend lullaby of the mountain range. This is how you keep the enthusiasm and beauty of nature from taking over your house and your life – and also, how you turn potential disasters into firewood (more on that later).

No doubt a few of you may have raised your eyebrows at the mention of leaf blowers. It is common for people who live in the inner city and other urban areas to nurture a vile, intense hatred for leaf-blowers – and oh, reader, I understand! I do! I, too, was once like you! I, too, was woken up at seven on a Monday morning by a man in a fluorescent vest waving a leaf blower around the barren asphalt yard of an apartment block! I, too, felt aghast at the wast of fuel, the carbon emissions, and the ghastly, horrendous noise! What was wrong with a rake? I wondered. How much longer could it possibly take to use a bit more elbow grease?

Oh, reader. How I have changed.

I tried the rake. I tried the wide, harsh-bristled broom. I did, honestly.

But I live in a forest. True, it’s a forest comprised largely of mountain ash – which are technically evergreens – but there are enough deciduous trees to carpet our yard and our path and our driveway several inches thick with fallen leaves; and, of course, the mountain ash shed long strips of bark. This nicely coils around the leaves forming an immovable mass of dead plant matter.

Once one has an immovable mass of dead plant matter in a wet environment like a temperate rainforest, one basically has glue. Glue made of dirt. Think papier mache, but brown and green. The stuff mulches down and, as near as I can tell, grows spiders – which I don’t mind, since it’s outdoors, but I thought I’d mention it (crawly critters will be the topic of another post). What’s more worrying is that it is, on its own, very slippery, and then it grows mold.

Our driveway is steep. It is ridiculous. My Fitbit Charge HR counts it as four flights of stairs. I consider myself to be reasonably strong and fit, and I still feel that dragging the wheelie bin up the driveway on bin night is a bit like Homer’s Odyssey but with less cyclopes and more posterior chain workout. Our driveway also has a camber, and a blind corner, and a drop off one side.

It is not a driveway for novices. I learned that the hard way (and that’s yet another post).

Now, that driveway is a hazard to life and limb when it is not covered in mulchy moldy leaf papier mache. Good tires are just a sensible decision up here, but there’s a limit to how much sliding can be prevented (particularly as parts of the driveway are gravel). I made the decision (after realising that raking or sweeping the driveway takes up to ninety minutes and leaf-blowing it takes less than half an hour) that I was going to put a certain amount of safety and convenience over my principles – because if I was going to do the whole thing by hand, it would simply not get done as often as it needed to.

It is a slippery slope (ahem).

After making that decision, it was very easy to note that our front path needed to regularly be pressure-washed; otherwise it, too, accumulates leaf matter and grows mold. First leaf blow, then pressure wash, and the maintenance of the path just to the extent that guests will not slip and fall and die on our brickwork takes several hours.

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This is a “before” picture of our front brickwork; to be fair, that’s after Husband had cleared the debris off the roof. And you can’t see the mold, because it’s covered in leaves and I didn’t leave this mass time to turn into papier mache before attacking it.

That’s with the power tools.

So, in spite of my hippy leanings (and I do have them, though I probably skew a bit more to the yuppie end of the spectrum with my love of gadgets), yes, I use power tools. We use weed sprays. I read the MSDS (you can take the girl out of the lab…). And when Saturday morning rolls around and the local community trudges out into their yard bearing gas-guzzling, power-hogging, noisemaking power tools and the mighty sound rolls out into the still morning air… I don’t complain.

I drink my coffee, and enjoy the song of the mountains.

Rainforest Living: How We Ended Up Here

Husband and I used to live in a rather cosy three bedroom flat in North Melbourne. I was fifteen minutes from uni on foot at a very leisurely pace; we were two blocks from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, three from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and two from Errol Street. The latter was a place where we could find at least two excellent cafes (a shout-out in particular to Hot Poppy, a local icon), really good gluten free gourmet pizza (at Oskar’s – honestly, that place is marvellous), and, occasionally, crepes (Frau’s!).

We lived near many of our friends, and two of my favourite people in particular lived about a five minute walk away, meaning a convenient stumble home after a drinking night was a real possibility. It was very easy to find cat-sitters if we wanted to go away. I could walk just about anywhere I had a realistic need to be.

We lived there for five years, from when I was 25 to when I was 29.

And then we moved.

With such a fantastic setup, why on earth would we move? And why so far away from the city? We ended up in Hurstbridge at first, a semi-rural northern town full of kangaroos and horses, before moving out to the Dandenong ranges temperate rainforest where we currently reside.

In no particular order, we left our homey little flat for a few reasons:

  • we were a bit sick of renting and rental inspections. We wanted to buy at some point; it was unlikely we would ever be able to afford to buy in the inner city, and neither of us was particularly likely to want to live in the suburbs. We just don’t roll that way. So: we were probably going to want to buy a good distance from the city, and it was worth renting at that distance for a year to see if we could each survive the commute and distance from friends.
  • Many of our friends were doing something similar, moving away from the inner city anyway. Not all, certainly, but we were spreading out and the really good situation where we were all nearby was already dissolving.
  • I wanted a dog. This possibly should be reason number one, but I did say “in no particular order.”
  • We wanted more space. I grew up with a fair bit of space around me, as did Husband, and while urban living was fine for a few years, the compact nature of it all was getting to me a bit.
  • The point where I cracked, honestly, was the noise. Our apartment block was on a truck detour route, and for years I slept through the traffic noise of too-tall trucks roaring past our windows (I imagine a giant trying to tip-toe in a similar attempt at stealth) in the middle of the night without a problem. Then suddenly, I couldn’t. Suddenly, it drove me nuts. The fact that it wasn’t dark at night because of all the artificial light. The fact that it was never silent. The lack of personal space. The closeness of our (totally inoffensive, incidentally) neighbours. And we had a really enviable living situation for an inner city couple, too!

So we gave up the cafes we could easily walk to. We gave up being able to trot over to our closest friends’ houses. I gave up being able to walk to the lab (although at this point, I’d mostly finished my PhD lab work).

It was an adjustment. We basically went and picked the puppy-who-would-become-Amos while the ink was still wet on our Hurstbridge rental agreement. We moved house, then I spent a weekend at a conference, then I drove a three hour round trip to pick up the puppy, and it all happened at once.

Moving house, big commute, writing a thesis, and a new puppy. It was a massive adjustment.

But…

There were frogs. It was properly dark at night. You could see stars. There were kangaroos on the fire track. We could, with admittedly some effort, walk down to a local café (at the time, there were really only two in Hurstbridge). When we left the lights on, there were an extraordinary number of fascinating insects. Not everyone will get excited about this, but gigantic leaf moths, crickets, and so on fascinate me.

And, of course, there was Amos. Tiny puppy Amos, bumbling about on his uncoordinated little puppy legs, offending our poor elderly cats.

After a year – and a few offers of trying to buy the house we were renting, because we honestly loved it – we started househunting to buy. The experiment, we decided, was a success.

Unfortunately, the property market in Hurstbridge was dead at the time.

We ended up looking in the Dandenong ranges, since we both love forests.

Finally, here we are, in the house I name the Mountain Fortress, because it is largely inaccessible and just driving here has terrified a few of my more inner city friends due to steep hills, blind corners, and sudden drop-offs.

It is stunning. It is extraordinary.

It comes with a number of very real challenges, which I will list for entertainment value in Part 2 of Rainforest Living.

O Bendy Gymster / This Keto Life: A Tale of Glycogen and Pain

When I think about my hypermobility, I usually frame it in a fairly simple way: it’s a physical disorder that sets limits on what I can do and how I do it. I work and think and plan to find a way around it so I can do the things I want and need to do, but I recognise that some things are probably off the cards (high impact aerobics, for starters, or any sort of “boot camp”, or weightlifting moves that involve very rapid and precise shifts in position, like snatches or jerks).

I dislike the fact that I’m hypermobile, but I also recognise that I experience a moderate presentation only and am very fortunate that it’s not worse. I can do a lot of things that many hypermobile people can’t.

It’s a degenerative condition, so I’m glad I found out about it in time to find ways to slow the process of damage accumulation.

Overall, I think I have a pretty good attitude towards my hypermobility. I see it as presenting problems to which I must find solutions, and I enjoy problem-solving.

But.

But.

Today is not one of those days.

Today I’m pissed off. Today I’m in pain.

It’s been a pretty intense week. I had a grant application deadline on Wednesday, which I only just met. I am normally much more organised with these things, but there was a last minute change to the budget which meant I had to scramble to re-jig the project, and my schedule, and then make the numbers add up and was emailing it to our grants manager at 10am on the due date (she needed time to review it before submission). I’m actually pretty pleased with myself that I managed to fine-tune this in the time that I had, but I’m irritated that it looked disorganised.

This meant a certain amount of anxiety, and not very much sleep – that’s not for lack of trying, mind you, but I don’t sleep well when anxious.

So I increased my activity level to try and bust the stress. It’s a time-honoured coping mechanism.

Then, on Thursday, I got an email from my diving instructor / mentor who offered me a job with the store to lead dives. I’d just finished my SSI Dive Control Specialist qualification (qualifies to work as a Divemaster and Assistant Instructor), and this was a very welcome and exciting piece of news. On Friday I signed the contract, feeling appropriately privileged to be able to do so, and on Saturday I drove out to lead my first paid dives. This went really well.

Except that I did it on extremely limited sleep. I was a bit stressed about the maiden voyage – so to speak – and I had to get up early, so naturally, sleep was an elusive bastard. I was rested enough to drive and dive safely, but it was well below what I function well on.

There was a party on Saturday that I really wanted to go to, so I followed my first day of a new job, involving heavy exercise, with a long drive out to a friend’s place for a shindig and a late night.

Meanwhile, partly due to anxiety and lack of sleep and scheduling issues, we ended up eating out a few times, and I really pushed the limits of keto. In fact, without meaning to, I pushed them far enough to break. I knocked myself out of ketosis and switched to a carb-burning metabolism.

In a timely manner – and this TMI is relevant – I also got my period.

What does this all mean for the Bendy Gymster?

It means that, because of excessive carbohydrate consumption, the Bendy Gymster is retaining bucketloads of water on her person. It means that, because of menstrual hormone issues, the Bendy Gymster is retaining even more water on her person, and has additional endometriosis pain parties happening.

Water retention is not good for hypermobile people. It’s not fully understood why, but it seems to irritate the joints profoundly. This irritation leads to inflammation. Even after you get rid of the extra water weight, the inflammation can take a while to die down. In addition, progesterone makes collagen more bendy, so the actual symptoms of hypermobility are more intense when a woman is going through shark week (my favourite euphemism. I don’t normally hold with euphemisms, but sharks are awesome).

Yesterday, the day after all the diving and sedate partying on no sleep, I woke up feeling seriously broken. Everything ached. I cancelled a much-anticipated meet-up with a friend I hardly ever see (due to his living in a different country) and crawled to the couch.

I forced myself through my physio exercises.

I forced myself through foam rolling and the spiky massage ball and a series of stretches, because after all the exercise this past week (remember, I was running to try and bust stress), my legs felt like knots dipped in concrete.

I forced myself through a very small set of modified push-ups and bent-over dumbbell rows (very light weight – I only have 5kg dumbbells).

Then I napped for two hours.

Then later on I forced myself out on a 90 minute walk.

“For fuck’s sake, Kate,” I hear you mutter, “Why would you do that? You’re exhausted and broken and in pain.”

Here’s why: because water retention caused by excessive carb consumption exists in the form of muscle glycogen. The quicker I can burn that off, the quicker the water weight is lost (nothing I can do about the period water, that just takes time), and the less my joints are being irritated, and the sooner the inflammation will go down.

Also, the physio exercises and the minor upper body work will help recruit and activate muscles that will support these very sore joints. Taking the pressure off, even slightly, will ease the pain and reduce any possible long-term damage. Yes, it was hard to do in my state. Yes, it hurt. It was a pain investment in a reduced-pain future.

This is what I mean when I refer to hypermobility as presenting a set of problems I need to solve. There are some problems I can’t solve – endometriosis is one of them. Down the line, I’ll probably get another laparoscopy, but there are reasons to postpone that.

But the period issues intensify before they get better, and this morning I woke up in so much pain I could hardly move.

Every joint in my body was irritated and inflamed. This includes my spine. I could almost count my vertebrae simply by noting the little spots of pain between the joints. I started the day with ibuprofen + codeine (the over the counter version) and wondered absently if I shouldn’t have hit something stronger. It was a toss-up as to whether I should take the ibuprofen (anti-inflammatory better for joint pain) or naproxen (anti-inflammatory better for endometriosis pain). The codeine tipped the balance.

Although if someone invents Naprogesic Plus Codeine, honestly, just shut up and take my money.

This does come out as a bit of a rant – and fair enough, because that’s what it is – but it’s also an illustration of why I might force myself to exercise when it hurts. It’s not the normal “something is injured” pain or the more benign “you did exercise, ouch” ache. It’s a specific kind of pain that I need to fix, and the best way I can fix it is by moving, and moving hurts.

If I didn’t know about glycogen and ketosis and so on, I wouldn’t know why too much carbohydrate causes me pain – and I wouldn’t know that movement is the best way to resolve it. Knowledge is power.

If I didn’t know about progesterone making collagen stretchy, I wouldn’t know that now is a very bad time to run – and I might have tried to deal with my “I need to move” solution in a dangerous way, and given myself an injury (I would predict a sprained ankle, but it could be anything).

The more you know, the better decisions you can make, and the easier it is to solve problems. That is why I do a ridiculous amount of research on my health situation. I use the information given to me by physiotherapists, podiatrists and doctors as a jumping-off point. The more I can go back and understand basic metabolic processes, hormonal processes, and so on, the more informed I can be. I’m not an expert in these things. I never will be. It’s not my field.

The best I can do is be an expert in me, and then use that information in conjunction with my medical support team to live the best and most active life that I can.

So, in conclusion: some days I am okay with being hypermobile. Some days it pisses me off that I’m in pain. Some days I see people running like graceful gazelles along my running track, legs lifted high and weight perfectly balanced, and it’s upsetting to know that I will never run like that – my body just won’t do it – to know that I look like a goofball, that I will always be slow, that I can’t lift my legs that high and stay balanced. It hurts.

And then some days I remember how far I’ve come, and I feel pretty damn good about being in a place I never expected to be.