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Exercise, Instagram & Chronic Illness

I tried to swim and caused permanent shoulder problems.

I tried to do yoga and I dislocated a rib.

I did a HIIT workout and I passed out. Twice.

I passed out on a spin bike. Once.

I should know better.

My body isn’t made to “work out”. It isn’t made to go to a bootcamp or a yoga retreat. It isn’t made to spend my morning at a running club, and it definitely isn’t made to fill an Instagram feed full of selfies tagged with #fitspo and #strongnotskinny.

I’m 28. I look perfectly healthy.

I’m not lazy. I’m not anti-exercise (far from it), but I have a number of chronic illnesses that significantly affect my life and my ability to move.

I was never an active child. In fact, before I got my first diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (a connective tissue disorder causing chronic pain and daily dislocations) at 21, I was always in trouble at school for trying to get out of PE. Nobody believed that I was in as much pain as I said I was. Because of my pain I was very inactive. And at 4 foot 9 (with a healthy appetite), that meant that I was more than a little chubby. I was just the fat kid who didn’t want to do PE. I was made to walk on dislocated knees and run the cross country (even though I came last). I was made to play lacrosse and netball after I’d slipped three disks in my back.

It wasn’t until I got my first diagnosis (and then subsequent diagnoses of PoTS – autonomic dysfunction, which for a very long time made me have near-constant tachycardia and pass out every time I tried to move – Histamine Intolerance & ME/CFS – where post-exertion fatigue can knock me out for days, weeks or months) that I started to understand how my body truly reacted to moving. And that I couldn’t try and exercise in the same way as everyone else.

When I got really sick, way sicker than I’d ever been, a few years ago, I joined Instagram. It started out as a food diary (at the time I passed out every time I ate) and found the healthy living and chronic illness communities. It was great, and soon I was part of the London scene – hosting wellness events and meeting bloggers and people who ran all kinds of awesome businesses.

I’m not going to get into a whole thing about body image, but suffice to say that as someone who has been sick her whole life, being comfortable in my body is something that I really struggle with. I’m now at a very healthy weight and slimmer than I ever thought I’d be (there had to be a silver lining of being unwell, right?) but being around people whose whole lives were in the health and fitness industry was really difficult.

I would scroll through Instagram and all I would see were videos of people lifting weights, doing so many burpees just watching it made me tired, or serenely twisting themselves into a yoga pose by a beautiful ocean. Memes would fly before my eyes extolling the virtues of pushing yourself harder, how it’s all in your mind, that there’s no excuse not to work out and that the results will be worth the pain you feel in the moment. Being seen in the latest leggings and at the hottest fitness class was all anyone could talk about. Food events for bloggers were coupled with a yoga or spin class so you could “earn” your brunch. Even though I know better, I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to listen to my body. I was sick of being the only person who couldn’t work out. Who couldn’t go to Psycle. Who couldn’t go to Triyoga. So I went. And I invariably made myself worse.

Even at home I would try to work out like a healthy person. I wanted to be fit. Those never-ending messages were hitting a nerve and I couldn’t shake them. They made me more frustrated at my body than I had been before. Why couldn’t it do something that was becoming so normalised by all the people around me?

I was supposed to push my body to the extreme, right?

I appreciate that a lot of these messages can be dangerous when it’s a near constant stream for anyone, but for those of us with chronic illnesses, especially young people, the idea of “just push yourself – you can do it if you try hard enough” is so dangerous. You see everyone else doing something that seems really ‘normal’ and something that you ‘should’ be doing. And you want to do it too.

Social media allows extreme (and sometimes dangerous) messages to spread so quickly, and unqualified people to gain huge followings just because they look good. This is why I’m really glad to see more and more people advocating for balance, common sense, and finding what works for you.

I mean, I can wake up in the morning with a dislocated shoulder just from sleeping. I just pop it back in, no worries, but I’m not going to be able to go and do one of the #girlgains workout classes. As much as I’d like to. Kind of common sense, really. Look, I’m not trying to demonise bloggers, or anyone that is into fitness. I recognise the importance of exercise. I think that when #Fitspo first started making the rounds, it came out of a legitimate cause for concern.

We all know that finding ways to keep active that are sustainable is important for everyone and it’s a key part of looking after ourselves – both physically and mentally. I just wish that we could redefine what we mean when we think about ‘moving’ and exercise.

In fact, for me, finding safe ways to move is an extremely important part of managing my health. I try and walk as often as I can. Sometimes I can walk for a while. Sometimes I can do some (heavily adapted) barre or pilates from home, and lift a few weights. Sometimes I can’t move and I’m in bed and need to rest. It’s hard, and it’s a struggle when you’re doing so well and your body then fails for a while and you have to start again.

But I’m finally learning to shut out the noise coming from the apps on my iPhone and listen to my body. I’m not trying to keep up with anyone or do the “hottest exercise moves to tone x y z” (although sometimes I do want to tone x y and z). After a serious injury that left me bed bound for a while, building up to walking around the block was a huge accomplishment. It may not be glamorous or Insta-worthy, but being strong enough to get out of the wheelchair that helped me get out while I couldn’t put weight through my knee for more than a few minutes, and doing it in a safe way, means so much. A healthy lifestyle looks different to everyone. The ways in which we eat and move are different. We need to stop looking to the extremes, offering unsolicited advice to people online and recognise that not everyone is capable of doing what our online idols do.

I’ve recently found that by really paying attention to what I do every day, means that my life has become a lot more stable. I see my health as my full-time job, and by thinking about how much I work, move, eat, rest and sleep, I’m able to avoid the boom and bust cycle that leaves me out of whack for months on end. I’m never going to be pain-free, and this is never going to be a daily struggle, but it’s at the point where it’s consistently manageable and I can keep moving forward. Not in the way I wish I could, but forward all the same.

Please take a step back and think about your body. Think about what is safe for it to do. Recognise that the images we’re often bombarded with aren’t the only way to be healthy. If you struggle with ill-health, make sure you find a professional to help you learn ways to move that won’t hurt you. Someone that can offer you support and motivation to keep moving. Don’t push yourself. Even if you walk around your house or do a few stretches. It’s a start and it’s enough.


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5 Comments on Exercise, Instagram & Chronic Illness

  1. Silvia Logan
    December 19, 2016 at 7:42 pm (1 year ago)

    True enough, Natasha! We should always find a sport that might be suited for our own physical body, because this type of exercise might be good for one person, does not mean that it is good for another. We are all different and we have different type of immune systems. I would say that walking long distances is good for you. Running marathons are not good for anybody, because it puts a lot of strain on a person’s body, even if the person might be very healthy. Running is hard on one’s knees. Too much strenuous exercise is bad for everybody.

    • Natalie Grover
      December 20, 2016 at 8:51 pm (1 year ago)

      I love this piece! I love bloggers and the IG community that keep it real. It can get exhausting seeing a multitude of self-validating mirror selfies.

      I think understanding your personal limits exercise wise and nutritionally is key. I don’t believe there’s a one diet/fitness plan that fits all. Finding your own balance is key.

      Thank you for your story Natasha and keeping it real!

      • Natasha Lipman
        December 20, 2016 at 9:03 pm (1 year ago)

        Thank you, Natalie! And ha, yes, it really can. I can’t bring myself to care about those things, either 😉 Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  2. caroline
    March 4, 2017 at 9:07 am (12 months ago)

    Hi Natasha, I dont have the sort of problems you do, but when an accident wiped out my knee temporarily I found that the leg of excercise that followed weakened me so much that I was experiencing the sort of problems you are talking about. I built up very very slowly, I have cod liver oil, some people of my age take fish oil, Doing your house work is excercise, so is walking, light gardening is always excercise, what is wrong with these? Some pilates excercises work well, nothing that stretches or pulls too much. Fish oils take 6 months to find their way around your system and taste horrible, but they do work for most people. Personally I found that the less I did the worse I felt, the more I did, the better I felt. I am not a doctor, I can only speak from personal experience, I hope this experience helps you. I also found that for me, doing nothing made me very very unwell.

  3. Rebecca beesley
    March 22, 2017 at 9:28 pm (11 months ago)

    Having seen the wisdom in your instagram posts, I popped over to have a read of your blog. And this is just the post I needed to see today – have been feeling so fed up and frustrated with my body (have had arthritis since age 10) and am generally not a ‘feel sorry for myself’ kind of person but my January flare up has continued so long that I am getting fed up this time as feeling useless and relying on others more than I’d like to. Was triggered this time by swimming by following my doctors recommendation – my instinct was screaming ‘no’ but I didn’t listen and I trusted the doctor instead of trusting my own body. Thank you for your words of wisdom x


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