What You Can Learn From Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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A strange thing happens when we hit our 40s: we truly realize what it means to age.

While we may be bundles of energy in our 20s, bouncing around like tennis balls, in our 40s we start to feel challenges to the body. These may be basic aches and pains, but could be more serious conditions. The body simply wears itself down—and no one is immune.

This truth hit home for me recently. Two years ago I started experiencing periodic aches—not soreness like after a workout, but a bone-deep, relentless pain. I would be exhausted but couldn’t sleep, my throat would burn, and my head would throb. The symptoms would linger for days. I had long ago been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder, so I assumed I just needed my medication retooled—a simple fix.

But one day the symptoms came to a head. For a week, my body was in so much pain that it took every ounce of energy I had to leave bed. It was terrifying. What is happening to me? I thought. It was time to admit that something was very, very wrong.

I eventually was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). CFS is known by its symptoms; no cause is yet known, but it may be activated by a variety of conditions or illnesses (e.g., Epstein-Barr virus and malaria). It is most common in women, especially those in urban areas. People with thyroid conditions and compromised adrenal gland function may be predisposed to CFS, and stress and poor nutrition may be triggers as well. According to my doctor, people who tend to be emotional and sensitive are more prone to CFS, but any person treated with chemotherapy and radiation can also develop it, as their white blood cells are diminished. Pregnant and perinatal women may also be predisposed, since their hormones fluctuate considerably. CFS has no known medical treatment. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed, since some afflicted by CFS experience symptoms of depression.

It’s been rough, no doubt about that. But I believe that my experience with CFS—and with getting older in general—has improved my abilities as a Pilates instructor. The best fitness teachers are the ones who have an understanding of physical challenges, who know what it means to be in physical pain, to truly be exhausted. The toll on my body has opened up a degree of compassion that I may not otherwise have had. There are so many young, energizer-bunny fitness instructors who just don’t get this, who write exhaustion off as laziness. (Believe me…I used to be one!) Age has improved my teaching practice, because it has made me realize that, despite our best intentions, life happens to everyone.

So as our body wears down, it’s important to focus on what you still can do, and do it to the best of your ability. After two years, I’ve found a lifestyle that keeps the worst of my symptoms at bay. It includes:

  • A clean diet. After a recent bout of CFS, my doctor said we needed to address anything that could trigger symptoms. My diet was a key suspect; I’ve always been a little carnivore, with meat as the bulk of my meals. Since then, I have cut most processed carbs and refined sugars and eat more vegetables. I still don’t eat like a perfect angel. (I have a drink now and then, I admit! Though I never do if I feel a CFS attack coming on). But these steps have granted me much more energy.

  • Daily exercise. It’s important to remain active during bouts of fever—you want to raise your heart rate every single day. Pilates is fantastic for its restorative qualities, but low-key cardio is important too. When I have a bad attack, the last thing I want to do is exercise. I just want to sit on my butt and eat chips. But when I do introduce a bit of activity into my day, I feel leaps and bounds better.

  • Rest and meditation. I know this contradicts the “exercise” commandment above, but: it’s important to listen to your body! Taking time to rest is critical to riding the wave of fatigue. Yes, I do work out, but I don’t push myself if I feel on the cusp of exhaustion. If I overwork myself, it will activate my CFS.

I still am energetic, especially now that I focus on healthful diet, exercise, and rest. But my experience with CFS has made me more accepting of fatigue. The body is not perfect. You will have good days and bad days; this is a fact of aging. The main task now? Be grateful for the good days you do have, and make them most of them.

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