I should probably start this article with a disclaimer: I am not a doctor; I am not qualified to give advice on exercise or health issues; what you read here is just my personal experience and opinions. Having said that, I would like to think that this series of articles may inspire those with chronic health conditions to consider weight training as an exercise option - with assistance from suitably qualified health/exercise professionals.
Let's start with a bit of ancient history. I have owned and exercised with free weights and a small bench on and off for a number of years - at least fifteen. When I say "on and off", the "on" has been only a tiny percentage of the total time. So, whilst I have had a passing familiarity with weight training, it has always been on an irregular and infrequent basis.
Why so much more "off" than "on"? My poor memory cannot take me back to how I was feeling and what was going on when I started/stopped training in the past but I know that there have always been two issues which have plagued me, and still do:
- Heat intolerance; whilst this is something that has worsened over the last few years, I have had a tendency to overheat easily and not be able to cool down again. Any form of sustained exercise - unless performed in a very cold environment - gets me very hot, uncomfortable and feeling unwell.
- Tendency to injury of wrists, elbows, knees, ankles. I have very loose joints and the slightest mis-step can produce an inflamed joint that takes some weeks to heal.
Now let's jump forward to April, 2007 - this was when I recommenced Weight Training, and since when I have not stopped. (I am writing this in January, 2008.) At the beginning of 2007, 4 years of declining health saw me vegetating in a chair most of the time. Walking down to the vegetable garden was a major and uncomfortable feat; I was very weak and regularly suffered from all-over myalgia. This is not a condition conducive to the control of Metabolic Syndrome, Type II Diabetes, a crappy lipid profile and other cardiovascular risks. Doing everything that I could diet-wise, I realised that I would have to exercise - somehow.
Walking was my thought. However, even going to shut the front gate (about 170 metres round-trip, on the flat) can be enough to cause severe over-heating. On hot days (above about 23° Celsius for me), more than 10 seconds outside can cause me to overheat. On top of this, attempts at walks of about 300 metres or so - on cool evenings - would leave me incapacitated the next day.
With Summer over and my office cool enough to enter, I decided to give the weights another try on the basis that High Intensity Training (HIT) takes very little time - not enough time to get too hot. To expand on this, if I am half way through a set and feel that I am overheating, I can just lower the weight and sit down - not something that is possible if I am walking and have several hundred metres to get back to the house.
Before we go any further, let's clarify some terms. To those who do not participate, there tends to be a certain amount of confusion and mis-application of the terms Resistance Training, Weight Training, Weight Lifting, Bodybuilding, and Powerlifting. What I do is actually Weight Training which, itself, is a subset of Resistance Training.
Resistance Training is exercise working against a resistance - this may come in the form of weights, machines, rubber bands, other people. It may be performed to improve perfomance in a specific sport or activity, to gain overall strength or just for general health and fitness.
Weight Training is resistance training performed specifically with weights. I call what I do Weight Training, although I do cable exercises; admittedly there is a weight on the end of the cable, but I am a little uncertain of the correct semantics here. For the purposes of this article, Weight Training it is. Barbells, dumbells, and kettlebells - weights that are not attached to anything - are termed "free weights". (My weight plates cost about $2 AUD per kilo plus delivery, so they are anything but free. Just my joke.)
Weight Lifting is an Olympic sport, testing strength through two movements, the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk.
Bodybuilding is an activity (I won't use the term sport, as it is judged subjectively on an aesthetic basis rather than any faster/stronger/longer/higher basis) focused on developing muscular size with a focus on symmetry and proportion.
Powerlifting is a sport which is a pure test of strength. It involves three movements - the bench press, squat and deadlift.
Overcoming the Problems
Overcoming the overheating problem can be difficult. Cold weather is a great help - I probably would not have manged to get such a good start as I did had it not been Autumn (Fall) when I decided to pick up the weights. Hydration is important - whether or not you have a heat issue. I tend not to feel thirst much, but do when exercising; this is rather handy because it actually makes me remember to drink. I go through a fair amount of water even during a short workout.
The greatest boon to me was installing a small air conditioner in my office. This not only means that I can now exercise in the warmer months, but also that I can work in my office all year round, rather than having it as a 9-month storeroom. Setting it at 21° Celsius, with the fan on 'high' allows me to exercise even on the hottest days although I still need to drink vast quantities of water and have a shower afterwards to cool down.
The last heat-related component is clothing. Whilst I tend towards natural fibres as much as possible, cotton can be hot and heavy and can absorb a considerable weight of water. "Hi-tech" synthetics designed for sports use can be light and wick away sweat keeping one cool and comfortable. For example, I have shorts from the Under Armour® Heat Gear range. I have found that these make a huge difference from my old cotton shorts, which feel like sail canvas in comparison.
I don't have the best physical coordination and my joints do tend to "let go" at unforeseen times (my wrists and ankles are especially troublesome) so I doubt that I will ever be injury-free. However, the incidence of injury may be reduced by:
- Just doing it; Weight Training strengthens the joints, thus reducing the chance of injury.
- Good exercise practice - adequate warm-up, stretches, etc.
- Safe practice with exercise equipment - checking that bars are always loaded symmetrically, double-checking collars are done up correctly before every lift, checking nuts and bolts on equipment are not coming loose, checking cables for wear, etc.
- Use of certain supports and "gadgets", which I will describe in my next article in this series.
For those using a public gymnasium rather than exercising at home, (2) may be achieved through professional coaching and enables working with a partner/spotter. I would suggest to anyone thinking of training with weights for the first time that they should at least start under the tutelage of of a qualified trainer, just to learn the correct form of exercises. Being pretty well housebound myself, I fully realise that this may be a hard proposition for Chronic Fatigue sufferers, but should nonetheless be attempted. (If you have home exercise equipment, you may even be able to get a trainer to come to you. Like my doctor, they may see you as a personal challenge.)
One final word on injuries/safety: before starting any exercise programme check with your doctor or a similar competent professional.
Coming Up in Part 2
In the next installment of this series of articles, I will describe the equipment that I am using and have used and my experiences of getting started back into Weight Training. Read Part 2.