physical-appearance-with-chronic-illness

Changing Physical Appearance with a Chronic Illness

I’ve avoided addressing the elephant in the room since I started the year making personal wellness changes. It’s a sticky subject and somewhat challenging to address when it comes to a chronic illness. Chronic illness and/or disability make any meaningful physical changes difficult (if not impossible). If you are unable to move for more than a few minutes a day, then dedicating that time to exercise is furthest from your mind. Priorities change and addressing your physical appearance can drift towards the bottom of the list.

And that’s okay. Let’s move our intention away from changing our appearance, i.e., losing weight, and refocus on being healthy. Exercising does not need to be about losing weight, but about moving to help your body heal and thrive. Weight loss can become an added bonus, but not a goal.

I started the MS Mommy Blog to be a space where I detail my wellness journey into healthy living and eating. My journey was never about changing my physical appearance, it was strictly about setting a good example to Jai and taking advantage of a positive MRI result. I accepted the following three things: I would never dip below an overweight BMI, never have a body I would be proud of, and never find a source of natural energy.

Because of MS fatigue, I had little desire to go out in the blazing Southern sun and humidity to exercise. Eating was a pleasure I gave myself, especially when I was despondent post-diagnosis. I say all of this because I understand how hard it is to take the initial steps towards making physical changes, but it is possible to start the process no matter your ability levels.

What I am about to discuss is based solely on my personal experience and I am not an expert. Because this is based on anecdotal evidence, your own results will not match mine (and that’s okay). Everyone’s path looks different and that’s okay. Speak with your healthcare professional about your ability levels and any recommendations they might have for you.

Stuck in the Body

When coping with a chronic illness, we are stuck in our bodies.

If you are reading this with a chronic illness, you know this, but I say that for the benefit of those without a chronic illness. It’s easy for outsiders to forget that we are stuck with the body we are in, particularly if our illness is invisible. It’s in those moments we get the harmful comments of: “just get up and exercise,” “it’s in your head,” or “you don’t look sick.”

Getting those comments, and living in a culture where we often ignore invisible illness, makes any desire for change discouraging. We are stuck within numb, shaking, fatigue-ridden, weak bodies that don’t listen no matter how many times we yell at it.

Being stuck in a body is discouraging, especially when you see others chase after their physical goals. Or when you see people squandering their abilities. It’s even more frustrating when you start comparing yourself to others with your particular illness and see how they are able to be active ways you aren’t.

That’s where the first change needs to occur: stop comparing yourself to others. Those with a chronic illness and those without. And you have to stop listening to what people and culture tell you (this includes this blog).

The changes you decide to make must be in your time and in ways that work for you. Do not use this an excuse to not make the changes, you do want to take time to get healthier, but do it without any expectations beyond finding a way to feel better that complements your disease management course.

Determine what you can change & what you can’t

There is so much wisdom in knowing what you can change and what you cannot. There are aspects to our bodies we cannot change unless we had unlimited income, and even that’s limited.

The key is to figure out what is changeable and what you have to accept will be a part of you unless certain circumstances change. Once you know what you can change, then you have to decide how much you want to focus on it and how much of it you’ll put into the “secondary” goal category.

Everyone can lose weight, but do you want that to be a primary goal or something that happens as a side effect to being able to move more?

For some, the idea of losing weight is emotionally painful, so that should not be the first physical goal you make. Instead, if your healthcare professional recommends moving more as a means to help manage your illness, then consider adding a fifteen-minute walk in each day and build up to thirty.

Or if you are advised to cut a particular food from your diet for health reasons, rather than seeing it as a loss, view it as a challenge to figure out how to make alternatives to your favorite foods.

When you make the changes you can and frame them in more manageable ways, you should notice secondary benefits. When I cut sugar from my diet, I was shocked at how much weight I unintentionally lost.

Choosing Health

Focusing on physical appearance and any changes you want to make is discouraging. If you had a weight loss goal for this year, are you still sticking to it? Or have you given up on it entirely?

Revisit your goal if you’ve dropped it and refocus it to be about your health. Don’t think about the pounds you want to lose, but how you want to feel by the end of 2019. Not all of the suggestions below are about weight loss, but about finding ways to adapt to your chronic illness:

  • If your illness prevents you from walking more than five minutes at a time if you can safely do it, why not see if you can add on a minute or two?
  • If your weight prevents you from doing basic chores, why not focus on one chore to do and do it well?
  • If you are mostly bed bound and you want to get more exercise, consider small hand weights or a resistance band for twenty minutes a day.
  • If you want to eat healthier, why not consider dropping one sugary or unhealthy snack in your day? If you find you’re hungry, consider adding in water or some other healthy alternative.

All of these changes are small, and if you are getting started, that’s all they need to be. For myself, I found that small changes snowball into bigger ones because I was encouraged by my results to keep moving forward.

Learning to Love your Body

Before you reach your personal health goals, the first thing you need to work on doing is loving your body as it is, warts and all. This includes accepting the chronic illness that inhabits your body. You don’t have to like that it’s there, but just accept that it’s a part of you and you need to adapt around it.

When you take the time to accept your body as it currently is, in this very moment, it takes the pressure off of yourself. When you don’t meet your goals for the day, you can say to yourself “that’s okay, there’s always tomorrow and these things take time.”

Don’t take this as an opportunity to slack off, you still want to work towards making healthy changes, but you don’t need to put as much pressure on yourself that you might feel you need.

Additionally, when you learn to love your body in its current state, you no longer seek validation from outside sources. We look to media and others as opportunities to compare and rarely do we measure up. If we have friends and family influencing our decisions because of a snarky response, we may get sidetracked.

Rather, say to yourself: I am doing this for me, I am doing this to be healthy, and I am doing this because I want to make a change. Then mentally give the middle finger to those who want to keep you down.


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Featured photo credit: Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

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One thought on “Changing Physical Appearance with a Chronic Illness

  1. Yes to it all! It can be so hard dealing with physical changes alongside everything else, but you’ve made some great points, like with not comparing yourself to others, valuing health first and foremost, and looking at the things you can change rather than what you can’t. Learning to love our bodies can be a constant work-in-progress, but letting go of the battle against ourselves surely would make our lives that bit easier. I know I’ve struggled a lot with my body and appearance and weight and food, and it’s exhausting when I’m already exhausted enough. I’m trying to ‘go with the flow’ a little more because I’ve been up and down on the weight side of things, and back down again now, and it can be difficult to deal with. Great post!
    Caz xx

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