We all wish we could exercise like Arnold Schwarzenegger: relentlessly and mercilessly, but the reality is that many of us have several significant obstacles or balls to juggle when we show up at the gym. Blood sugar levels and insulin doses are just one of those obstacles. Others might include frozen shoulder or a hip injury or neuropathy or rheumatoid arthritis.

Ginger and her daughter

For me, that obstacle (aside from the ol’ type 1 diabetes) is fibromyalgia. (And then the fibro of course could become an obstacle for my type 1 diabetes because exercise is HUGE to managing blood sugars and my sensitivity to insulin!)

Most people think fibromyalgia is about pain, but the biggest monster of fibromyalgia is managing my energy. When I manage it well, which is most of the time, I feel awesome! When I make mistakes or push myself too far, I feel severe exhaustion.  Here’s a deep-dive into how I personally manage or mismanage my limits around fibromyalgia.

What Happens When I Don’t Respect My Limits

Every few months (in the past, I’ve recently smartened up) I try to lift weights again. It goes well for about a week, sometimes two weeks. My former co-workers often tease, “Oh, look who’s back!” or “Wow, you’re still alive? Been a while…”

(An important detail to note: I used to be a personal trainer and an Ashtanga yoga instructor, while also training and competing in drug-free powerlifting. Between training clients 6-8 hours a day in the gym, teaching 5-7 power-yoga classes a week and following Russian powerlifting programs…I loved working out.)

Ginger Vieira Bench Pressing

Here’s my personal experience of fibromyalgia flare-ups that are, 99 percent of the time, a direct result of me disrespecting my limits or acting like I don’t know I indeed have fibromyalgia:

My Normal, Very Best Day

Well, let’s start with what I feel like at my very best as a person with fibromyalgia. On a normal day, I feel great. I have plenty of energy to run around with my daughter, act like a chimpanzee, walk the dogs, go to the gym, do the laundry, make dinner, clean the house, and write several articles about diabetes.

Physical pain is a daily thing for me, and it always will be, but I keep it at a minimum. My hands, neck, feet…okay, most of my joints…always hurt a tiny bit in some combination. They don’t usually all hurt at once, but maybe 1-2 spots hurt every day. But it doesn’t keep me from doing all of the things I mentioned above.

Mild Flare-Up: Pain

For me, this is when my hands/feet/neck start cramping and spasming because I’ve done something too repetitive.

Triggers for this can be anything from weeding in the garden to using the Stairmaster at an intensity beyond “easy” to trying to hold the phone between my head and my shoulder because I’m too lazy to get my headphones out for a long conversation. All of these things will lead to muscle spasms and joint pain that could last a day or two.

The pain is intense enough that I have to ice my wrists, avoid the gym for a couple of days, or be unable to turn my head to the left because my neck muscles are clenching so tightly.

Frequency: This type of flare-up is something I experience a few days each month. It’s not devastating but it’s something I have to address and deal with in order for it to pass quickly.

Medium Flare-Up: Grouchy Brain Fog

For me, this is about tiredness because I’ve done too much of something for a longer duration than I should have. The result is that the next day or two I feel really foggy and I just want to sit on the sofa all day…(which is not an option because I work part-time and I’m a full-time mother).

The triggers for these medium flare-ups is when I’ve done too much of something, which is vague, and is also why it’s taken me a few years to really figure out my limitations here. I can powerwalk for an hour, but if I find myself powerwalking for two hours with a friend, yes, I’ll trigger a medium flare-up. Weight-lifting a tiny bit will trigger a medium flare-up. And stress too, like hosting guests for too long or being in an emotionally draining situation for too long (such as the death of a loved one, etc.)

Frequency: This type of flare-up is something I experience maybe for a couple of days every few months. So not too often!

Big Flare-Up

These flare-ups are when I need to sleep because I’ve really overdone something physically.

Weight-lifting is obviously a huge trigger if I tried to do even an amateur workout several times in one week, or a more moderate workout just once. I will find myself in a complete zombie haze. It’s a type of fatigue that you really don’t know the feeling of if you’ve never felt it, because it’s not just tiredness. It’s like your brain is filled with cotton balls and you feel like someone is asking you non-stop physics questions. You just want to collapse and cover your head with a blanket and sleep in a dark, dark room. And then…the insomnia! Oh, I hate insomnia, up until 5 a.m. even though I’m so, so, so tired!

Frequency: Fortunately, these are rare for me. I’ve had maybe 4 or 5 days total in a year where I feel like this, because once I spot that it’s happening, I can make sure to get extra sleep, take care of myself and heal. And I do know that regular/low-impact cardio exercise is crucial in making sure I keep my insomnia at bay!

Super-Duper Flare-Up: Fog, Fatigue, Depression

These flare-ups are when I have truly over-done it, and I’m such a deep state of brain-fog and fatigue that I can’t remember that I don’t normally feel like this! These flare-ups leave me on the edge of tears, crying quietly into a pillow for no reason, and feeling like the rest of my life will be spent crying into a pillow even though 99.9 percent of days are the opposite. It is just all-consuming.

I can’t even really tell you what the trigger would be because I’ve gotten very good at preventing these! But I can tell you that going for an afternoon hike up a Vermont mountain would definitely do it.

Frequency: maybe once a year for a day or two? Although I don’t think I’ve had any of these flare-ups this year! Yahoo!

Embracing My Limits So I Can Stay Active

Walking. Walking has never triggered a flare-up or pain in my feet or knees (as long as I wear the right sneakers…which, for me, happen to be the “five-finger” Vibrams).

In the winter, I walk in the deep snow in our woods with my dogs. In the spring, summer, and fall, I walk on our road, in the woods, and on the indoor track at my gym. Often, I’m walking with 25 pounds of Lucy (my daughter) on my back. Recently, the weight of her as she gets bigger has actually finally started “hurting”…something I’ve been anticipating as I know my fibromyalgia tolerance can’t keep up with her growth.

Daughter and dogs

So far, our walks in the woods don’t cause the same level of discomfort because I’m walking at a slower pace and not the same repetitive gate as a walk with leashed-dogs on a road.

Because of her recent weight-milestone, I’ve stopped walking on the road with the dogs and Lucy on my back, and instead I save that 30-minute walk for the evenings when my husband is home early enough that I can walk them without her.

But I still need to make sure I get the exercise I need—for my sleep, my energy, my blood sugars, my appreciation for what my body can do, for setting a good example for my daughter, and for my body, my muscles, my bones!

So we’ve adjusted our schedule and I take Lucy to the “playspace daycare” at our gym when it opens in the afternoon, and I walk on the track or one of the AMT Precor cardio machines for up to an hour. I can incorporate a tiny bit of light-light-light weightlifting and abs when it feels right, but I limit myself to only one or two exercises maximum.

A Few Tips for Finding Your Exercise Limits

  1. Experiment! I have tried everything in the past 3 years: swimming, tai-chi, spinning, jogging, walking, stairmaster, dancing, elliptical, sprinting, biking, bodyweight, burst-training, yoga, qi-gong…the list goes on and on! Test the waters, carefully, and see what feels best. If it means you’re just moving slowly to your own groovy rhythm, then whatevs! At least you’re moving.
  2. Even a little counts for a lot! You don’t have to climb mountains to do exercise worth your while. If walking for 20 minutes a day is what you can do, then do it! If there’s only one ab exercise you can do without pain, then do it.
  3. Eat well. My diet isn’t perfect but I do try to make sure at least 80-90 percent of my diet comes from whole food, real food, and food I prepared. I also think that having been gluten-free due to celiac disease helps to keep my pain at a minimum because gluten is an inflammation-creating beast. It causes inflammation in everyone, and some people, like those with chronic pain, are more susceptible than others.
  4. Appreciate your body. Even though my body can no longer teach 7 yoga classes a week or bench-press my bodyweight like it ain’t no thang, it is still a body I appreciate. It is still strong, it is still capable, and it can still be healthy!
  5. Get enough sleep. If getting a proper amount of sleep isn’t a priority in your life, you’re going to prevent your entire body and brain from healing and recovering every day. Lack of sleep has been linked to depression, flare-ups, and weight gain…did I mention depression? It’s time to make sleep your biggest priority.

It’s a balancing act, and it’s taken a lot of experimenting (and failing) to figure out what does and doesn’t work for you. It can be frustrating and tedious and discouraging at times, but do not give up. Find what type of exercise works for you, keeps you connected to your muscles and bones, appreciating what your body can do, and re-charging you instead of draining you.