I have been ill for 18 years with Fibromyalgia and ME, but have got to the stage where I think I can do more exercise. I used to love dancing but my ankles and joints are weak now – how can I strengthen them? I usually over-do anything new, so get knocked back quite quickly. How do I avoid that?
You are living with two debilitating long-term conditions which we still don’t fully understand scientifically. By now, hopefully, you have worked out how to manage daily life in order to avoid aggravating pain and fatigue. It will not surprise you if I start with a big caution: make progress very gently indeed. Your tendency to over-do things is common among people with these conditions, but you will understand how severely you can get knocked back when you do over-reach yourself. Self-discipline is the key.
A return to dance can be a goal, by all means, but it will need to be a medium-to-long term one. First, you have to build underlying fitness. To start with, keep it simple. Your best exercise will be either walking, cycling or walking up and down in the pool. All these activities build heart and lung fitness, give you more energy, help with sleep, and start to strengthen your body, including those weak joints. With luck, you will also find your pain levels reducing, too.
Draw up an exercise chart, so you know exactly how much time you are scheduled to do each session. Only do two sessions a week to start with, and only increase the amount of time by one minute a week. You will need to pick an initial exercise time based on what you know about your own tiredness levels, so work out that figure (eg 10 minutes) – and then reduce it by at least 2 minutes to play safe!
Carry a stop-watch so you do not exceed your maximum time. After the exercise, record three things: a. how you feel; b. a score out of 10 for how hard the effort was during exercise, and c. your pain level (0 to 5). The next day, also record any delayed reactions to the session. You can learn and adjust from this valuable information.
The first three months are the hardest, because you may well get some adverse reactions. Use your experience to decide whether the reaction is a real “knock back” or just the effect of the new and increased activity. Remember, you may be doing more than you think – eg, just getting to the pool or park and back all represent increased activity that your body may find draining.
When you get reactions, give yourself an extra day’s rest, then try again. If necessary, knock a minute off your previous time, to keep it manageable. In this tortoise-like way, you will gradually build up, aiming for 30 minutes’ walk (or cycling etc) three times a week with no adverse reactions. It may take many months to achieve, but it will feel fantastic when you get there. Then you can plan your next step towards your first ballroom dance class!