How to improve chronic inflammation
Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 117 “How to improve chronic inflammation”.
When I first started Fit Body, Happy Joints, it seemed like I was fighting an uphill battle. This battle was to convince people that destroying their bodies in the pursuit of fitness isn’t necessary to see results.
And I often still feel that way. But yesterday I saw this quote from Jennifer Aniston:
“The workouts I used to do were exhausting and painful. My mind used to (tell) myself that if i didn’t do 45 minutes to an hour workout, I wasn’t drenched, it wasn’t enough. I put my body through it… and over time, breaking your body, pushing your body that hard is just diminishing returns.”
When I saw this, I immediately thought “IS JEN AN AN EVLO MEMBER?”. (she is not) But it just goes to show that this message is becoming more mainstream.
Although the mindset is becoming mainstream, there are certain things that are still misunderstood. How to structure a workout to make it both gentle on your body and high bang for your buck is one of them.
That is the purpose of this blog: to help you get this mindset by explaining current research and teaching you how to actually execute some of these things.
The fitness industry is evolving and it makes me so excited for the future.
Inflammation gets thrown around a lot, but I want to talk specifically about exercise and inflammation.
I’ll describe what inflammation is; the differences between acute and chronic inflammation triggered from exercise; how chronic inflammation affects your fitness results; symptoms of chronic muscle inflammation; and how to resolve it so you can feel better and see better payoff from your efforts.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to an injury. When your body senses damage or infection, your immune system triggers a cascade of events to protect and heal the damage.
Inflammation has side effects of swelling, pain, and loss of function in the area.
Let’s use the example of a bug bite. It’s not the bug bite that causes the redness/swelling. It’s your body’s immune response to that foreign substance that causes that response.
Inflammation is an amazing thing. It wants to keep us safe, confine potential infection, and trigger healing.
Inflammation can be acute or chronic. Acute inflammation is a short-term response that lasts days to weeks. Chronic inflammation can persist for months or years.
Inflammation and exercise
Inflammation is a vital part of exercise and improving the strength and size of muscles.
During the workout, muscles are loaded and strained, producing microdamage. This triggers the inflammatory process.
Depending on the extent of the muscle damage, this process typically takes about 48 hours for your body to heal that damaged tissue.
During this time, your body works hard to repair the microdamage created in your workout.
As the muscle is undergoing acute inflammation, it gets weaker before it gets stronger.
Connecting with your muscles
This is something that isn’t well understood. It’s one reason why working muscles each day is so counterproductive. Due to the swelling in the muscle itself, your neuromuscular connection is dampened, temporarily weakening your muscle.
If you work a muscle again during this time, you’re re-starting the inflammation process. It’s like picking a scab: breaking open a scab delays the healing process. You want to leave it alone and give your body the opportunity to heal.
What happens when you can’t “feel” your muscles?
When you can’t “feel” your muscles engage, it may take a higher threshold of stimulus for you to “feel” any muscle burn. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Some people will do super high rep or put on booty bands to get that muscle contraction sensation.
I’m not saying that using bands to stimulate contraction is always a bad thing. But if you can’t do a bodyweight lunge and connect/feel your glutes engage, it’s likely because your neuromuscular connection is dampened. This can often happen due to inflammation from overuse.
This is why you may feel so much more connected to your muscles after a reset week or a few consecutive days off. Your body has cleared inflammation. This improves neuromuscular signaling, cleaning up muscle contraction/recruitment patterns. You’ll then get a higher quality workout.
Inflammation and injuries
You are more prone to injuries if you work a muscle during the inflammatory process.
Because of the altered neuromuscular pathways, your proprioception declines. This means you may not have a lot of control in deep ranges of motion, leaving you vulnerable to injury.
But so many are conditioned to work a muscle group more frequently that they desire to change. Stimulus that is too frequent begins to disturb and delay this natural healing process, eventually contributing to chronic muscle inflammation (myositis).
Overuse from a repetitive exercise routine that stresses the same muscles without enough rest in between can cause this chronic muscle inflammation.
Unfortunately, this is very common with group fitness. Many times the workouts aren’t structured with each other in mind. Many times, instructors will preferentially work the same muscle groups that many people want to “improve” like glutes and abs.
When I was a practicing PT, so many of my patients struggled with this. They would be working glutes or abdominals very frequently, mistakenly thinking they are making these muscles “stronger.” But when I would muscle test their glutes, they were completely weak and disconnected. They would be confused and surprised. They thought those muscles should be particularly strong because they spend so much time working them.
But because they were overusing them, they were experiencing inflammation in the muscle and dampened neuromuscular awareness and strength.
Importance of recovery
This not only is counterproductive for strength, but also for physical results. You may be putting in the hard work, but working yourself backwards.
Adequate recovery is a crucial part of hypertrophy (muscle growth). When the muscle is constantly inflamed, recovery is inadequate. This inflammation can interfere with muscle protein synthesis, the process of building new muscle tissue.
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress
Chronic inflammation can contribute to something called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can cause muscle wasting. This can influence body composition, overall health, and accelerate aging.
By not structuring your routine, you could actually be working against yourself.
Strength and hypertrophy will be affected. You can also experience some very uncomfortable symptoms like constant soreness, muscle tenderness, and tightness.
Here are some symptoms you may be experiencing chronic inflammation:
- Accelerated aging (related to oxidative stress) like gray hair, wrinkles, etc.
How to heal from chronic inflammation
First, it’s important to identify these signs before they get too severe. If you’re an Evlo Member and you’re starting to experience some of these symptoms, it’s time for a reset week to stay ahead of it.
This is something I recommend for everyone who is consistently strength training every 8-12 weeks.
These reset weeks can give your body a chance to catch up on inflammation, grow muscles stronger/larger, and ultimately help avoid chronic inflammation. These will keep you on track, avoid accumulating oxidative stress, feel better, and see better results.
Studies show that these reset weeks can improve anabolic signaling that seems to get dampened over time with consistent muscle loading. Translation: the pathways responsible for healing and growing muscle improve with some structured time off exercise.
If you’re coming from a workout routine that is overusing muscles (maybe doing lots of lunges and squats and abs every day), this is your sign to restructure your routine, consider healing from your chronic inflammation, and put yourself on a path that will be a higher payoff for your time investment.
Here’s my recommendation
It depends on the extent of damage and how long you’ve been in this chronic inflammation state. It may take tinkering and adjusting your routine. So although I’m going to give you some guidelines, you have to use the scientific method on yourself. Develop your hypothesis, try a method, assess to see if it worked, and if it doesn’t, keep trying things until it does.
You can start with a three step process: heal, load, fuel.
I’d recommend taking 4ish days off any resistance or high intensity exercise (up to 7). Just walk or do gentle activity that doesn’t stress muscles.
People ask if they can still do Pilates and I’d say no. Pilates still loads your muscles. Just keep it to gentle flows, walks, etc. A good rule of thumb is to not feel muscles burn during this phase.
People are so afraid of this step because they are afraid to lose progress. But remember, if you are chronically inflamed, you have much more to gain than lose by taking some time off. I take 4-7 days off resistance training every 8-12 weeks.
After that, you want to load muscles very intentionally and specifically. We do this very well in the Evlo membership. Many programs load muscles very indirectly or apply force in ways that strain joints. This can cause unnecessary inflammation and stress on your body. I can’t guarantee that this process will work super well if you are doing workouts that are filled with exercises that may be overly stressful on your joints.
Finally, you need to hydrate and fuel properly with enough protein.
If you want to learn more about this process and have 5 of our strength classes to keep forever to get you started, check out Burnout Bootcamp: The body recomposition without the burnout.
This program is designed for people who are overusing their bodies in their workouts, experiencing chronic inflammation, and wanting to start working smarter not harder.
In this workshop, I help guide you towards body recomposition (losing fat, gaining muscle) without burning yourself out.
My hope is that you can sustain these changes. I will not lie: this is not a fast track and will be about finding what works best for you.
But it will give you a great place to start and will really reframe how you think about exercise.
And best yet, you’ll feel better by transitioning to this type of routine because you’ll be working with your body instead of against it.
Even if you don’t decide to join, I hope this post was useful and insightful for you.