I have a confession. I used to run and weight train four to five days a week, but when my health began to deteriorate—and I came down with a severe case of chronic fatigue—all that came to a screeching halt. Almost four years later, I still haven't found my way back to the gym the way I used to. Running is out of the question, and I still haven't picked up a single weight.
Staying active through chronic fatigue is about baby steps. I learned a lot about being honest with myself, adjusting my expectations, and constantly checking in with my body. Luckily, with a background in exercise science, I had a considerable advantage and was able to develop an effective modified exercise program to keep me moving. It saved me from extensive joint pain, immobility, muscle loss, and endless postural ailments, and I would recommend it to anyone with chronic fatigue.
Leg Curls: Lie on your stomach with your legs extended. Bring your feet toward your buttocks, bending your knees to do so, hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and then return to the start. This stretches your quadriceps and works your hamstrings.
Leg Presses: Lie on your back and lift your legs up, approximately perpendicular to your body. Bring your knees toward your underarms, hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and then push your legs back up. This stretches your glutes and lower back and works your quadriceps and glutes.
Calf Raises: Lie on your back and lift both legs up, perpendicular to your body. While you keep your knees straight, pull your toes back. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and then push your toes up. This stretches and works your calves.
Hamstring stretch: Lie on your back and lift one leg up, keeping the other leg on the bed. Pull your leg back as far as possible, using your hands as necessary. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
Cobra: Lie on your stomach and then prop yourself up on your forearms. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. This exercise will stretch your lower back.
Counter squat: Hold on to a stable surface and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Squat down as far as you are comfortable with, preferably until your thighs are parallel to the floor. This exercise works your quads and glutes.
Lunge: Hold on to a wall or rail for support. Place your feet in a staggered position (one foot behind the other) and perform a lunge. When your front thigh is parallel to the floor, return to the start and switch legs. This will work your quads and glutes and stretch your hip flexors.
Step down: Find a stair and hold on to the wall or rail for support. Stand on one leg with the opposite leg in front of you and squat down until the opposite heel touches the floor. Then return to the start. Switch legs. This exercise works your quads and glutes and improves your balance.
Counter push-up: Place your hands on the edge of the counter and your feet behind your body. Lower your body to the counter as far as possible, and then return to the start. This exercise works your triceps, chest, and core. It also stretches your chest—especially when you keep your hands wide.
Reverse fly: Stand tall in an athletic position and cross your arms in front of your body. Pull them back as far as possible; this exercise works your upper back.
Row: Stand tall in an athletic position with your arms in front of your body. Pull them back as far as possible, bending your elbows to do so. This exercise works your biceps and upper back.
Calf raise: Stand on a stair and hold on to the wall or rail for support. Drop your heels below your toes. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and then come up on your toes. This stretches and works your calves.
Hamstring stretch: Hold on to a stable surface. Lower your torso, preferably until it is parallel to the floor. Keep your knees straight and your back straight This stretches your hamstrings.
Walk: This can be a short stroll around the house or outside. Walking helps clear your mind and increase blood flow to all parts of your body. If you are in pain or feeling depressed, a short walk can do wonders.
Be patient with yourself
At my lowest point with chronic fatigue I was fully bedridden, and I had to learn not to overdo it. Some days my routine consists of only bed exercises, there are days when it's only for two minutes in the morning and night, and some days it consists of absolutely nothing.
It can be a frustrating process and will test you not just physically but mentally and emotionally—especially if you're used to being highly active. But don't despair. You can have a successful exercise routine through chronic fatigue if you are kind to yourself and don't push too hard.
Rachel Straub, M.S., is an exercise physiologist, nutritionist, biomechanist, certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), and co-author of Weight Training Without Injury: Over 350 Step-by-Step Pictures Including What Not to Do!, which has won 17 book awards and has been endorsed by major names in sports medicine, physical therapy, and professional bodybuilding. She received her B.A. in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University, master's degrees in nutritional sciences and exercise physiology from San Diego State University, and a master's in bio-kinesiology from UCLA.