"Make yourself stronger and get to know your body"
For Lena Markström, exercise became medicine for dealing with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). In her everyday life, she helps others as a physiotherapists and personal trainer, to get started in the gym. Her training tips include variety, getting to know your body and daring to test yourself.
Who are you?
My name is Lena Markström, I’m 58 years old and I work as a physiotherapist and personal trainer. Among other things, I show people how to use the gym in different ways, introduce exercise programs and adapt them to the individual.
In my work, I meet people who want to exercise but don’t always know where to start. I notice that they start to think it's fun pretty quickly and that they feel much better. Every day people tell me things like "yesterday I ran for the bus for the first time in 15 years" or "now I can carry the cat litter home myself". People can go hiking, play with their grandchildren or vacation in the mountains when they couldn’t before. Over the years, I have also met many people who, due to exercise, have not had to have hips and knees replaced, or at least been able to postpone it for a few years.
How did it start for you?
My problems started when I was 20 and working as a nurse. I started working out in the gym and felt less pain, but my pelvic joints still hurt. When I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) at the age of 30, then Bechterew's disease, it was a real shock.
Today one of my most obvious symptoms is stiffness. I feel stiff in my chest, but it gets better if I do my back exercises. I do not think of myself as ill. Today I am more active than I was when I was younger. I feel very mobile even though I have my diagnosis. This is probably because I know what I need to do to take care of my body. If I exercise less, my problems increase.
I love running the most, even though I'm not built like a runner, I love it. In between, I do strength training, mostly crossfit. For me, exercise is really like a medicine, it is pain relieving. I notice so many positive effects. I have gained much more self-confidence and I have increased my confidence in my own ability to do different things.
How do you train?
I think varied training is one of the most important keys. I think about exercising in different ways and working all the muscles so I do not overload anything. I also adapt my training according to how I feel on the day.
My rule is that if I feel worse the next day, I know I did a little too much. I always have some pain, and sometimes it can get a little worse during activity.
I plan my workouts. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I run crossfit, on Tuesdays I run intervals and on Saturdays I run for a little longer. Should I wake up on Wednesday morning and be in pain, I adjust my activity for the day. The bike at the gym is usually a good alternative and maybe my body will gradually perk up and I’ll be able to do some strength training. Other days, maybe a walk will be the option I feel best about. I have days when I feel generally unwell fatigue. But for me, fatigue gets better with exercise.
The most important thing is to find your level and learn to listen to your pain. It often gets better when you exercise. Starting slowly is also good. When I started, I trained maybe two to three times a week and when I felt up to it, I added another day.
What exercises do you like?
When I discovered crossfit, I found something I was missing. The mix of everything, the strength, the explosiveness, the rhythm and, above all, the community.
The coolest thing and what makes it suit me so well is that it is so adaptable. I can always replace movements that I can not do on a particular day. We encourage and support each other, laugh and challenge ourselves. Sometimes I say "no but I can not do that" and then the coaches show me an alternative I can do instead.
What do you find difficult or painful to do?
I think people are often afraid that something will hurt. They will think or say things like "my knees can't handle that". What makes things safe for me is both that I have a lot of knowledge myself, but also that my coaches know me. I try my best and when something works, I challenge myself a little further and increase the intensity.
I think group training is very good if you are afraid something will hurt. You can dare to try things that you wouldn’t do by yourself in the gym and get help with technology and execution.
What is your favorite gym exercise?
For me, first place on the podium goes to ground lifting. It's a great exercise that covers the entire backline. I get such a kick when I notice how strong I have become. My self-confidence has increased as I have done a lot of ground lifting.
What tips can you give people who want to get started?
Find an instructor. I think it is very good to go to a gym where you are offered help from an instructor. Then you should explain to them what problems you have. Bone strength is always good to start with, as it helps the large joints.
Think about what you can do and not what you can’t. A while ago I had surgery on my shoulder. While I was recovering I told myself "I have two legs and one arm". When I thought about it like that I realized there was a lot I could do, even though my shoulder had to rest and be rehabilitated in its own way.
Get help to discover the gym. It is always good to ask for advice from a physiotherapist. Many clinics have a gym and they’ll show you how to use the machines. Remember that today all kinds of people train in the gym! Young, old and all with different needs and limitations.
Expand your knowledge. Learn about your problems and what is best - dare to try and dare hard! If you have RA which goes into relapses, for example, maybe you should not lift too much weight while you’re having a flare-up, but in between - go for it!. Sometimes we're all too cowardly. Go for it! Add some more weight - but learn the correct technique first.
Make yourself strong and get to know your body. Strong muscles are the only thing you have to protect your joints, so give yourself time to build your strength. Your body awareness will increase and you will learn what your body can do, so get to know it. The less you trained before, the faster you will feel the effect. You will have more stamina in everyday life and enjoy lots of other health effects too.