I wrote this post back on January 6, 2013. I suppose like anyone who is considered medically obese, I get nervous giving an audience ammunition. However, I’ve let that fear go enough to believe this needs to be said. This post began as a quiet plea – now it is a call to action to anyone who organizes gentle fitness classes for other people, especially the chronically ill.
I’ve struggled with obesity pretty much ever since I became ill, or rather, I did at first and then accepted that no matter how much I walked, cycled or did circuit training, I would remain fat, but fit. I was never going to be my slim adult self again. I’ve made my peace with that, especially at a time when pain and other symptoms mean I’m eating less than ever. Food preparation is something that doesn’t appeal when you feel like you’ve been kicked in the side – all day, all night.
Like most people with chronic illness, setting aside the chorus of non-ill people telling us we’d feel better if we exercised, I know that it does feel good to be fit (even if fat). It never cured my Sjogren’s syndrome, and my depression was never aided by the promised rush of endorphins, but I did appreciate the way I showed self-care through daily exercise.
The day I wrote this post, I went to a gentle yoga class. It started off very well, but then morphed into a set of exercises that, while moderately gentle, concentrated all my weight on my knees and folded wrists for at least an hour of the class. It was very difficult, this ‘gentle yoga’ class, and at one point I found myself pushing down silent tears at the torture of a class that had promised a way back to fitness. At least, my tears were mostly silent until my nose decided to run, and then I had to contend with silent, sniffling, tears. I felt like a failure.
I spent the afternoon after that in awful pain. It was beyond contemplation doing anything else with my day, but immobilizing myself and trying not to hurt my screaming muscles or joints. Not only that, said joints were injured for 3 days afterwards. If I can’t get through a gentle yoga class without 3 days of pain, why would I go back? It’s a shame because in matters of fitness, I’m a fairly social animal. I need the encouragement of other people working alongside me to maintain the (well, if not enthusiasm) commitment to improve my fitness. If I can’t start with the bar at the bottom, than where do I start?
It felt like a great blow, as I’d had a long, happy association with yoga in the past. At one of my workplaces, between 1995 and 1999, we had a hatha yoga teacher/naturopath visit our workplace and lead us in an hour class at lunch. I was a regular attendee from the start, and fairly soon found myself as the de facto organizer, emailing the staff when it was time for yoga, and encouraging everyone to come along. Not bad for an introvert. I got a lot out of the practice, including some tips for my particular health issues, which at that time included an inordinate number of sinus and throat infections.
Life sends us more challenges, more pain, and more complications with our illnesses. I moved to another country, and left behind that one day a week practice. I kept cycling, but by 2005 I was walking most of the time with a cane.
Of course, the chronically ill don’t think about doing more realistic, manageable classes because no-one, nowhere caters for obese people with autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, depression and other challenges where the class must not only be low-impact, but the ‘workout’ part must not last more than 20 minutes. No one caters for that market, which is a shame, because there are quite a few of us out here.
I find it constantly confounding that the basic mechanics of the human body, especially the obese body, escapes even the most caring and intelligent teachers, except those who specialize in ‘heavyweight’ yoga (only to be found in the DVD section on Amazon, as far as I know). I presume we’re expected to exercise at home where no one can see us. Just as people don’t choose to have invisible illnesses, such as autoimmune diseases and mental health challenges, they don’t always choose to be obese.
There are a couple of reasons this happens. Of course, there is the component that the non-ill eagerly recognize, which is we do less because doing more means pain. We shrink back because going out is either exhausting, painful or terrifying with our challenges. We stay inside our comfort zones. In doing less, the only way we maintain weight is to eat less, as so many of us do.
The other reason that most people don’t consider (or consider a cop-out) is that the pharmaceuticals we rely on for control of our symptoms or pain (which is the case for many illnesses where there is no cure) almost always cause weight gain. This seems true of a lot of psychiatric medicines. This is my experience. In 1987, when I was 21, I weighed 119 pounds. A year later, I started on a triphasic birth control pill. In 1990, I weighed 152 pounds. That was the year I became chronically ill. In 1991, I started on the first of many psychiatric medications. I also sought out a doctor about recurrent sinus problems and difficulty breathing while swimming. He told me (not addressing my other complaints) that I needed to lose weight. At the time, I weighed 178 pounds. By 1995, after years of different (and often poorly prescribed) psychiatric medications I weighed 229 pounds. In 8 years, my adult weight had nearly doubled. I consulted an endocrinologist. His scientific wisdom? “It likely would have happened anyway”.
It’s now 2013, and I weigh 233 pounds. I know it’s not good, hence the gentle yoga class. My pain is worse than ever, and most yoga poses cause piercing pain that takes my breath away. That’s not conducive to any kind of exercise. Obviously the mass borne by my weight-bearing joints is high. It’s a factor I wish those slim, fit yoga teachers would keep in mind when they design a gentle class. I’m not asking for a class designed for marathon runners with ‘dodgy’ knees or circuit trainers who injured a muscle and have to take it easy for a week. I’m talking about classes for the chronically ill, who aside from the difficulty of finding someone to take us to a class if we can’t drive, can’t afford to be discouraged by the pain of exercise from balancing on our knees or wrists for too long.
There are many numbers bandied about, but a popular one is that a pound of weight equates to four pounds of stress on the knee joint. Therefore, it stands to reason that my 233 pound self is in deep trouble compared to my 119 pound self. That extra 114 pounds is putting 456 pounds of stress on each knee.
I put this out there in the hope that more progressive teachers will do the math the next time they ask someone in a gentle class to kneel continuously on a thin rubber mat for an hour. Help us to stay fit, even if we have to be fat.