How strength training and nutrition helps me

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For the last 2 months I have been working with a personal trainer. The reason I started these weekly sessions is because I had read in multiple books the benefits of strength training in helping you recover from CFS/ME. There is research that proves GET (Graduated Exercise Training/Therapy) aids recovery yet I had already been doing this under my own steam by following the advice I read in books about going for gentle walks and how to increase the length and pace gradually.

Surely exercise will increase your fatigue and pain?!

When you have extreme fatigue, you ache all over and your joints are painful you don’t want to move. Surely then, exercise is the last thing you want to do? However over a period of inactivity you lose muscle tone and strength. Those who frequent the gym regularly know that even a week off whilst away on holiday or perhaps due to illness entails a bit more effort upon your return to the gym. This is why. For those who are less active, this loss takes slightly longer but it still happens. It leads to clumsiness, the inability to grip items or even open jars. I experienced all these but put it down to the CFS. Admittedly my illness was a factor but I know that it was primarily due to loss of muscle tone and strength as a result of my inactivity.

The literature states that a well-structured strength and conditioning programme is ideal, and one in which exercise levels are adjusted according to recovery. I had already been walking, and swimming is expensive and also tires me out. I also knew I would not manage a swim before work as I was just about making it through 2-3 lessons!

So, I was aiming for an exercise programme that included some form of strength training, nutrition, aerobic exercise and lastly yoga to keep me flexible and reduce stiffness. I wasn’t looking to be able to lift the heaviest weights but to use them to gain strength. I wanted to feel my heart pumping blood and oxygen around my body, feeding the muscles. I wanted to feel out of breath not because I had walked up the stairs but because I had cycled for 10 minutes at a moderate to fast pace.

Finding a personal trainer

I was quite anxious at first, before I had even emailed a few trainers at my gym (which I had to re-join), because I was unsure how my body would react and whether it would actually help. It’s also a big financial commitment just to try this out. Similarly when I had visited the gym at the end of December, despite doing some gentle cardio (I didn’t even break a sweat), I found the experience overwhelming and tiring. The noise, movement, number of people and experience of once again exerting myself slightly felt too much for me to handle physically and mentally. I decided not to return and to focus on walking, increasing the length and then the pace.

However my frustration at seeing my husband go to the gym and my sister telling me about the gym classes she had been to added to my low mood; exercise relieved stress and I missed the euphoria of completing a particularly difficult HiT class, being shouted at to keep going for 20 more seconds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to start attending the classes immediately, or for a long time for that matter. However we decided that I would contact a few trainers and see what happened.

Another anxiety with beginning with a personal trainer was that not many people know about CFS and it affects everyone in different ways. I also wanted to do more yoga so chose a PT who I knew specialised in this, among other things.

My excitement and euphoria peaked when I received a reply from this PT. Not only does she know about CFS but she suffers from fibromyalgia! There would be no-one better than her to help me get fighting fit again. If you saw her you wouldn’t think she suffers from fibro, but then it is an invisible illness…she’s small in height, tiny in stature and has bright hair. She can be fierce but is gentle and cares for her clients. We arranged a meet so she could find out if she was right for me and vice versa – she has to be picky as when she’s having a bad day knowing she’ll make a real impact with her clients motivates her to come to work.

She asked me what I eat and I replied that I’m healthy. Actually ‘that doesn’t mean much’ was her reply, or something to that effect. Two months later and I better understand what she meant by this, but more of that later.

Firstly, exercise

There have been ups and downs over the first few months. The downs have mainly been when I decided to do 4 gym sessions in a row and got told off for it (in a nice way!) but mostly it was a downer because it contributed to a flare. It crept up on me slowly so I didn’t realise until it was too late. The ups happen every time I go to the gym or do a session at home. The feeling that my body had allowed me to accomplish a workout and be able to lift weights that I would not be lifting if I wasn’t working with my PT. If I feel fatigued or achy, I go as planned and see how I feel once I arrive at the gym. If I feel rubbish after 10 minutes I’ll do a shorter session as I know just doing a bit will make me feel better in the long run.

Next, nutrition

So I started off by logging my food on a well known app that can also track exercise and links to various exercise tracking devices. I’d used it before a few years ago when I wanted to lose weight for a friend’s wedding. I didn’t understand much about nutrition but used it to calorie count as it works out how many calories you should eat based on your current weight (and height), your target weight and the length of time you have to achieve this. It worked but now I know that this app is not always 100% accurate and you can actually change the parameters for the macronutrients (macros for short). A term I had never even heard of back then but I now know is what is important for any form of training, whether it be to maintain weight but tone, lose weight and tone or even put on weight or gain muscle.

I downloaded the app again primarily to track my protein intake which averaged at 60g per day, at a push. I needed to aim for around 150g per day. *Slightly ‘defeated-how-on-earth-am -I-going-to-do-that’ face.* Protein helps repair and build muscle but it would also help reduce my aches and pains. I’m not a vegetarian yet I don’t eat much meat. Just because. I’ve grown up not eating as much because my mum is a pescatarian. My husband had to stop eating so much meat when we started living together! Now we eat it everyday, well fish and white meat mostly.

A few weeks ago I had to basically track everything, my carbohydrate percentage was reduced whilst my calories were increased slightly (they’re still under what the recommended amount is for a female).

Planning meals for protein intake

Planning meals is now more time consuming because I need to check the macros after I input a meal or even simply a food item like a yoghurt. I also need to carefully think about what I am eating as it will impact on what I can eat throughout the day because it’s so easy to go over my carbs and fats but remain below my protein. I now have to really carefully plan what I am going to eat at the start of each day or the day before then tweak foods or meals based on the outcome.

For example for breakfast I now have 2 eggs, a mushroom, some spinach, feta and sometimes add a small potato either scrambled together or as an omelette. I add some cheesey tasting flakes that look like fish food but are high in protein. Thankfully the pot looks nothing like our actual fish food pot!! This means my fat and protein intake is higher and carbohydrates lower, particularly if I don’t have the potato.

However if I have cereal, it limits my food choices later in the day as a normal portion of oats or bran flakes is pretty high in carbohydrates (25g approximately). The recommended portion of bran flakes or similar is tiny and I haven’t the foggiest how anyone could function on that, even with a snack, until lunch.

Lunch could be leftovers from the night before or a salad with a tin of tuna, yes a whole tin, some beans like chickpeas or cannellini beans, a few cherry tomatoes, some feta depending on my remaining fat quota and potentially a tin of sardines. Yes a whole tin. I’ll chuck in some salad leaves for good measure. This could be to make up calories as sardines are high in protein, low in carbs and can be low in fat depending on which you have (olive oil is high in fat whereas tomato sauce is lower). I was finding that I was approximately 200 calories under because I had reached my carbs and fat quota. That was due to a lack of planning. If I maintained this I would not have as much energy and my PT wouldn’t be able to change the parameters because she wouldn’t know what is working for me – apparently it’s a work in progress at the start until she works out what is the best for me to get the best results.

Now I’m adding the food in my diary the day before I’m able to make changes before I’ve prepared the food and so have been reaching my calorie goal and being on the cusp of my macros. I’m even reaching my protein goal! Frankly it is boring and time consuming and I am still learning about nutrition. I am trying new meals out too which is testing my tweaking skills! But I’m seeing results.

  1. My pain has reduced and the aches are hardly noticeable. When I am in more pain or ache it is due to a gym session, so a good ache. Oh and I ache more and for longer than I used to because it takes my body longer to heal. Great. This I haven’t seen an improvement in and I’m not sure I will as my PT warned me about this effect.
  2. I have more energy. Yes I still feel fatigued but I can do an activity for longer, like gardening! I’m having a day off from the gym today because I’ve spent 3 hours conducting speaking exams and I’m tired and achy from my session yesterday. I still have to listen to my body.
  3. I’m sleeping better, for longer and when I do wake I tend to fall asleep almost immediately.

It’s only been in the last 2-3 weeks that I have increased my protein to the desired amount, or near enough. So it is possible that some of the above could also be due to my recent holiday to Jamaica and another week off for the Easter holiday. In addition it is still early on in the school term. Time will tell!

On the whole though I feel good. Really good.I haven’t recovered but I’m feeling better and that is progress. I’m happier because I go to the gym with purpose. I know that my PT’s other clients are following the same programme and she makes me do weights that challenge me because she knows I can do it and it will only help me in the long run. I’m eating better than I ever have and I always considered myself a healthy eater. Now I’m fuelling my body. My husband said the other day that he feels fuller and better. It’s because of what we are eating (also what we aren’t eating so much of!). I haven’t taken out any food groups, I am just more aware of what I am eating and how much. I’m not doing anything fancy or different in terms of exercise, just what I would be doing without this illness, if a little less frequently.

So taking that leap and having a PT is the best thing I have done for me in terms of helping me feel physically and mentally stronger, be less clumsy and in less pain. I am also a lot less stiff and on the whole more positive with life. I have lots of happy endorphins skipping around my body and I wish to keep it that way.

1 thought on “How strength training and nutrition helps me”

  1. Really well written as usual. Great that you have worked at finding strategies to control the symptoms through nutrition and exercise. You certainly seem to be better than you were a few months ago so hopefully the improvement will continue on an upward curve without too many downward knocks.


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