Exercising with Cholinergic Urticaria

Category : Focus

I don’t know when exactly I developed Cholinergic Urticaria (CU) but I do remember going from being on the relay team in high school to not being able to jog for more than 5 minutes, without feeling like I was having an allergic reaction!

Cue the heart palpitations, dizziness and the overwhelming urge to scratch my skin raw. This is not a mild discomfort, this is not a “feel the burn” from exercise, It is PAINFUL and ITCHY and STRANGE. The urge to scratch also doesn’t provide relief because during a CU attack my nails feel like pointed knives on my skin. The entire sensation feels like - what I assume those with food allergies feel when they consume something they are allergic to. It also comes with an overwhelming sense of panic that I cannot understand. Not only is it incredibly painful it also feels embarrassing.

I remember speaking to my “fit” friends and there were so many speculations related to it being a symptom caused by being unfit and how people they knew with similar could push past it. So I decided to do just that

— BAD IDEA

I wasn’t prepared to get a CU attack in a kettlebells class and having to walk out midway to strange looks. I also remember trying to push past it on a treadmill and jumping off to have a scratching frenzy in the gym bathrooms.

Slowly and subconsciously I began avoiding all forms of physical activity to avoid the sensation.

At this point, I had also started getting the beginnings of a CU attack whenever I had a particularly long hot shower - WHY?! I am not running, I am not jogging! My fit friends didn’t have an answer for that one!

I spoke to my doctor at the time and she looked at me like I had two heads and prescribed anti-histamines “just in case” — They didn’t work.

I had done my research, I knew exactly what it was and saw that there were communities of people just like me. They were just as frustrated as I was, with very few finding any relief from treatment.

I basically accepted that I could still have my hot showers but they had to be short or I cycle between hot and cold if I wanted it longer (eww) and I was just that person who just couldn't exercise!

I saw myself increasingly gaining weight and losing overall fitness and got sick of it. So I signed up with a personal trainer and explained my condition and effectively told him that we would be conducting an experiment of “will I get a CU attack with this or not ” in our sessions. I am grateful for him because he spent that evening researching CU and came to our next session with a fitness program I had never tried.

A strength and resistance program with little to no Cardio.

He was the first person who ever took it seriously in years.

There were a few false starts where a particular set would start the beginning of a CU attack. We noticed that they were always the sets that caused a sharp rise in body temperature or involved the entire body. We saw that isolated exercises with weights, done at a good pace were always fine.

He observed me at each session and slowly increased intensity. I saw that for the first time in a very long time, I did not need to run out of the gym, with a subconscious vow never to return. I showed up every day and made progress!

After my sessions ended, I joined a semi - private strength and conditioning gym and again explained my situation to the personal trainers. They would modify the group exercises for me and I slowly began to squat more, lift more and I felt great! I saw that if I could control my body temperature/ environment, I could get a great 45minute session in with 10 minutes of LIGHT cardio at the end.

Having the instructors that come with a semi private gym also meant they could push me within the realms of my own capabilities — which I would not have done by myself at the time as this form of exercise was still new to me.

I want to make it clear that for me, the issue was not Cardio itself but any kind of activity with the ability to make my body temperate rise a considerable amount— Yep! no HIIT for me!

All I had to do was be more observant of how a particular set made me feel and I would determine whether to continue that type of exercise or not.

So where am I at today ? :)

Well truthfully, the pandemic has caused many disruptions to gym attendance so I have somewhat regressed. I cannot squat or lift the same as I did but I have made a decision this year that I would make fitness EASY for me and I would be consistent.

The way I have decided to make fitness easy for me is to exercise AT HOME. I chose Home for the following reasons.

  1. I can control the temperature of my environment — I am exercising this winter with the windows open and a fan on Yes!
  2. I have no excuses about the weather.
  3. I will not be bound by whether a new variant forces gym closures or not.
  4. I do not have to think about my social battery after work — i.e. I wont need to see people.
  5. I can work with my own schedule and I am not bound by gym opening and closing times.

The ways that I am staying consistent at Home

  1. I have committed to a maximum of 25 minutes per session but doing that 4–6 sessions a week. This makes it very hard for me to rationalize skipping a day because “its only 25 mins”.
  2. I have accepted that speed is not my goal. Consistency is.
  3. I am continuing with strength and resistance training because they work for me and don’t trigger a CU attack.
  4. I have a calendar on my wall where I cross off the days that I achieve my goal. — I get a lot of joy from crossing off the days! —
  5. I have committed to having No More than 2 consecutive skip days in a week on that calendar.

I chose to write this post in hopes that anyone else struggling to exercise with CU finds it helpful . I spent a long time feeling hopeless about this situation and finding a new way to stay fit gave me my life back in many ways. I hope the experience I have shared here can do that for you.

I personally don’t believe in trying to push past a CU attack. It is truly awful and there are so many other ways to get fit that wont result in potential anaphylactic shock ( yes that can happen with CU). I know it can be hard to see others define fitness by running , jogging HIIT etc. but always remember that they don’t have CU. Never compare and never let them do that to you either.

On consistency with exercising at home, I would like to share this talk by James Clear on how to get 1% better everyday, I owe my consistency so far to this message here .

Lastly I want to share my current fave exercise videos to follow along with in case you are looking for ideas!

Please note that I am not a Health or Fitness professional and you should check with your Health Professional before starting anything. Particularly with CU , if you feel a funny sensation. Stop - Do something else. You will find your thing . I promise — just keep trying!

  1. Full Body : Strong Yoga by Growingannanas
  2. Upper Body : 20min Toned Arms and Shoulder by Growingannanas
  3. Mid Section : Waist + ABs: by Bailey Brown
  4. Lower Body : Thighs Inner + Thighs Outer by Bailey Brown — ( Do not underestimate these ! )
  5. Upper Body : Arms and Sides by Bailey Brown
  6. Full Body : 30 Min intense Low Impact by by Growingannanas — I am able to handle only 5 minutes of this, I do it at the end of my workouts so it doesn’t ruin my overall workout for that day if I get a CU attack . My goal is to slowly creep up to 6 minutes, 7 and so on OR Stay at 5 if that’s what my body can handle.

I really hope these help and that a treatment / cure is found for CU soon!

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