In Sickness and in Health

No, no, no, I’m not writing about marriage, although it would be an excellent topic for writing about health and well being. And not just in terms of, “Exercise save my marriage and made me a better husband and father,” although it’s entirely possible that I did write about it. Here for instance.

No, what I’m talking about is exercise and health.

I found myself pondering this particular topic today as I have an absolutely foul headache. Yesterday it was freezing, today it was warm and pouring rain, and then it was warm and sunny, and now it’s clouding over. These sorts of rapid weather changes play havoc with my head.

I don’t often get headaches and when I do they’re usually triggered by some combination of stress, sleep deprivation, weather changes and bad diet. Well, work’s been a little wonky the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been sleeping well, and I just described the weather. End result, bad cluster headache, one with the potential to graduate to migraine.

But wait Andrew, didn’t you write about Bikram yoga fixing your migraines? Not exactly, I wrote about it helping with several of the triggers. Migraines don’t get cured, they get controlled, and if you’re lucky you eventually age out of them. My father did, around my age, so here’s hoping. Fortunately this headache is not going to graduate to migraine, and here I am.

So, exercise. In sickness and in health. Why is exercise so helpful for your health? It all comes down to your immune system and the effects of unhealthy lifestyle upon it.

  1. Stress. Stress elevates your cortisol levels, and elevated cortisol levels reduce the effectiveness of your immune system. Exercise helps you metabolize cortisol, reducing it’s levels and improving your immune response.
  2. Sleep. Exercise improves your sleep. Improved sleep helps keep up a healthy immune system.
  3. Weight control. One of the primary reasons we exercise is to keep our weight under control, and even losing a small amount of weight improves your immune system.

Then there’s the whole viscious cycle of ill health and lack of exercise. We get sick, we don’t exercise. We don’t exercise and our immune systems get weaker. So, we get sick more, and exercise less. And so on.

I started this whole thing off talking about headaches. Mine can get so bad that even the slightest elevation in heart rate and blood pressure is unbearable. The beating of my heart feels like a sledgehammer inside my skull and even something so simple as standing up from seated can set it off. It happened this morning.

Friday morning is 7 am hot Pilates and the problem was that today I woke up with a pounding headache. There was absolutely no way I could do a HIIT class, the increased heart rate would have driven me from the room before the end of the first exercises.

But here’s the thing. You CAN exercise when you’re sick, or have a headache. You just need to find the exercise that works for you. At the least I can walk. Even better, I can go to a Bikram Yoga class.

When I began doing Bikram four times per week I learned two things about my headaches. The first was that Bikram reduce both their frequency, and their severity. For the first time in my life I found a workout that I could not just do with a headache, I could go in with a headache and come out pain free.

Over time I found out something more. I can go do yoga even when I’m sick. One time I had a head cold so bad that one of my sinuses was completely plugged. The pain from the blocked sinus ran up my optic nerve gaving me headaches, and there was nothing I could do to open it up. I tried mist, I tried irrigating it, nasal inhalers, decongestant pills, whatever. Nothing worked.

But, outside of a cold, a plugged sinus and a headache I felt okay, so I went to my regular Bikram class. Some combination of the heat, humidity and the workout released the plugged sinus and I left class clear, headache free and feeling great.

So now, in sickness and in health, I get in my workout.