Autoimmune Athlete: How I Train through the Pain


Published: 10/13/2021

By Emma Whitaker

The relationship between exercise and mental health gets spoken about often, but in practice is very personal.

For me, it was about finding a sport that I could escape to when a lot of other things felt out of my control. Having an autoimmune disorder means things would never be straight forward, but in a lot of ways when I’m in remission, I’m still able to lead a somewhat ordinary life.

In Spring 2021, I sadly found out that my autoimmune disorder was flaring again. It was 11th of April, and here in England, it was the night before gyms reopened their doors after four months of closure due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. I was distraught, as I was so excited to get back to weightlifting with my club, but I was so fearful of what another flare up could mean for my body.

I went to training as I planned, and for the first couple of weeks everything was okay. Despite having to make multiple calls a day, booking appointments and negotiating with specialists, when I got to my bar and started loading up the plates, for an hour or so, I was just me at the gym. A month in I had a procedure which confirmed my flare, and the application process for new treatment began. I was weaker now, and more fatigued, but I kept going to the gym. I knew my body, and I knew that not only would moving it help recoup some of the energy I lacked, but it would give my mind the space to focus on other things for a while.

When my new treatment started, things really got tough. Social engagements got cancelled, long drives were out of the question, and I suffered immense brain fog trying to complete work projects. But I made sure to reserve enough of what little energy I had, to get to the gym and put in some work. So many people questioned me, but I knew it was helping, not hindering me.

It took a few months of feeling as though I was being dragged along on my heels by a horse and cart, but my treatment started to kick in overtime, and now remission is within reach. Having worked hard with my weightlifting coach and bringing onboard a nutritionist, I kept my body in the best condition I could under the circumstances and kept my mind healthy at the gym, not just my body.

I feel lucky to say that I’m heading in the right direction and I know that my mental health would’ve come out of this so much worse if on top of everything else, I hadn’t had weightlifting. Sure, there were days when my body really said no, and I listened to it. But on the good days, and on the average days, I got myself on the platform and lifted some weights.

Because during a time when I felt like my life was out of control, I knew I always had the plates, the bar, the chalk and the platform.

Sometimes just the small things pull you through.

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