Sean Foy

How to stay fit when ill or injured (Part I)

I have worked with clients with different illnesses, including arthritis, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, exercise-induced asthma, and fibromyalgia – not to mention fitness-related problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. From them I have learned that a sickness or disability does not define who we are or what we can accomplish.

Next to lack of time, nothing can derail your fitness plans faster than a life-altering health concern.  If you have an acute illness (you suddenly get sick) or injury (you sprained your ankle), you’ll need to recuperate before you can resume exercising.  On the other hand, if you have a chronic health challenge – a longstanding difficulty – you need to find ways of working around it.  This blog is for you.

I have met many individuals over the years who have shared with me their pain and fear, seeking my advice and support regarding how to exercise correctly for their condition.  I have reassured countless people that they do not have to forego the myriad health benefits that regular exercise can provide. People with chronic health issues can, and do, exercise safely.  Learning to exercise safely with your health challenge will give you greater energy, balance, coordination, endurance, and strength, as well as ultimately easing your pain or discomfort. Regular exercise can provide just what the doctor ordered!

If you have a chronic health issue, you know you have to manage your energy carefully, so you may fear that exercise will use up what little energy you have. A thoughtful exercise program is not painful and does not require that you over-exert yourself.  Most people report they feel better after exercising, not worse.  Exercise gets your circulation flowing, boosts your metabolism, and brings more oxygen to your brain and to the cells of your body.  It also builds muscle and prevents your body from declining into a de-conditioned state.  As an added bonus, exercise helps prevent depression, creates “feel good” endorphins, and provides a sense of accomplishment for people whose health or movement is impaired. Whatever your particular health concern may be, getting started on an exercise regimen, or getting back to a regular fitness routine, is one of the best things you can do for your mental as well as physical recovery.

Exercise can be extremely beneficial for people who have arthritis, back pain, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease, knee injury, and other issues. In the next few blogs I want to discuss the “Top 5” health concerns I have dealt with over the years as a trainer and coach, and share with you the ways in which the 4•3•2•1 workouts can be adapted to address these particular challenges. You’ll notice, I will be referring to exercises found in the 10 Minute Total Body Breakthrough book as well as movements you can perform without the book. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but if you find yourself in one of these categories, I hope it will get you up and moving again. The “Top 5” conditions I will cover are lower back pain, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, fibromyalgia, and cancer.  I’ve also added some guidelines for the happy challenge of exercising while pregnant.

Who’s On Your Team?

First things first.  Before you start any exercise program, consult your doctor. I would encourage you to discuss with your physician the 10 Minute approach to fitness and the 4•3•2•1 workouts. You may want to bring this book to your appointment with you. Ask your doctor if there are any limitations or modifications you should keep in mind.

Next, consider hiring a qualified trainer to work with you. Personal coaching is especially helpful for individuals with specific health challenges. Individual attention and instruction from a knowledgeable fitness expert is invaluable.  Look for a certified trainer who has experience working with your particular condition. Inquire about the extent of his or her experience in working with people who have your particular challenge, and obtain references so you can contact others who have worked with this fitness coach. I recommend interviewing at least three personal trainers to see who is the most qualified and the best fit for you. Even if you work with the trainer for only a short period (4-10 sessions), this time and money will be well spent. It will provide you with encouragement and with the confidence that you are performing the various exercises correctly and without undue strain or risk. (For more information on selecting a personal trainer, go to

Encourage your personal trainer to work directly with your doctor or health care practitioner (physician’s assistant, physical therapist). This communication – before and during your training – ensures that your trainer will know about your individual limitations so you can make the most progress possible.

Proceed Slowly

Formerly, medical advice for chronic ailments was to restrict activity.  Now, thankfully, the medical community has changed its approach. While each chronic condition varies in its treatment plan, usually the best advice is to get moving again!

Rehabilitation or reconditioning requires patience, persistence, and usually professional support.  If you are healing from an illness, injury, or accident, it will require sustained effort and time to recover. If you are exercising around a chronic health challenge, it will take time to rebuild your strength.

Most people with a chronic condition become inactive due to pain, discomfort, limited range of motion, lack of motivation, or fear. Inactivity leads to a decline in physical strength and stamina. Loss of muscle, weight gain, depression, and fatigue may mean you are worse off now than you were when you were first diagnosed, plus at greater risk for further injury.  With the right help, you can reverse this situation!

#1 Challenge: Lower Back Trouble

By the time we reach 45, most of us will have experienced some form of lower back discomfort.  Your problem could be a strain (injury to a muscle or tendon of the lower

back), sprain (injury to the ligaments which support the spine), or a herniated disk (the small round cushions between the vertebrae of the spine become displaced). Next to the common cold, lower back pain is the most frequent cause of missing work in corporate America. Lower back pain is also one of the main health challenges when it comes to realizing a regular fitness program.

When your back hurts, everything seems to hurt! Your back is composed of three main areas: the upper portion of your spine (the cervical), the middle portion of your spine (the thoracic), and the lower portion of your spine (the lumbar). The lower back experiences the most challenges as it is responsible for providing strength, mobility and connection between our upper body (chest and arms) and our lower body (hips, pelvis and legs). The strength and mobility of your lower back is crucial to simple daily activities such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, twisting, turning and bending.

Lower back pain or injury is generally caused by poor posture or improper body mechanics plus prolonged sitting, combined with sudden, quick movements that damage ligaments, muscles or tendons that have become overly tight due to lack of core conditioning (the muscles of the abdomen, hips, and lower back). The good news is, lower back pain can be significantly improved by following a regular comprehensive exercise program like 4•3•2•1.

To get moving again:

1.            Consult your physician and discuss your condition and current fitness status.

2.            Perform Level 1 Workouts # 1, 2, or 3.  Do not perform any exercise that is uncomfortable or painful, or that places undue strain on your back.

3.            Perform H.E.A.T. (High Energy Aerobic Exercises) that are less traumatic to your joints, such as seated marching, seated running, seated air boxing or stationary cycling.

–            Avoid performing any exercises that are jarring to the joints such as jogging, running, jumping rope, or jumping jacks.

–            Use a lower intensity (fitness intensity level 4-6).

–            Consider performing your exercises in a pool to relieve the strain on your back.

4.            Perform the Level I core strengthening exercises from a seated position in a chair (or wheelchair).

–            Avoid any rotating movements.

5.            Perform the Level I stretching exercises and deep breathing twice a day.

–            Avoid Level II and III movements that require rotation or twisting motions.

6.            Be aware of any undue pain or extreme fatigue in the back after your workouts. If pain persists, contact your doctor.

To avoid any further back problems:

•            Avoid reaching or twisting motions.

•            Focus on posture and proper body mechanics

•            At your office, keep items close to you.

•            When sitting at work or in a car for a prolonged period of time, place a pillow or rolled-up towel in between your lower back and the chair.  Every half hour, rotate the pillow or towel for five minutes.

•            Use proper lifting technique when picking up any object, remembering to bend your knees and transfer the weight to your legs.

•            Avoid sitting on overstuffed furniture, and consider getting a new, ergonomically correct chair.

•            Remember to rotate your mattress every six months.

If you are confined to a wheelchair (with acute or chronic pain or condition) you may find the following chair/wheelchair exercises beneficial as well.

Click here for wheelchair exercises.

Till then, remember to Finish Strong!

Coach Sean

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