How High Intensity Exercise Broke Me (and Why it's Bad News for Chronic Illness)

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With CrossFit popularizing high intensity training, you've either heard of it or even tried it yourself. Or maybe high intensity interval training (HIIT) without the CrossFit name such as a 20 minute tabata workout with body weight movements and/or kettlebells.

The friendly competition environment fitness like this creates is all good fun on the outside. Those succeeding around you pushes you to succeed more, right? This is very true and many people really thrive on this.

But, let me tell you, the degree in which people are pushing themselves everyday in this environment... day after day... is extreme and opens the door to health problems down the road. 

I’m going to share with you my own story and how high intensity training perpetuated my chronic illnesses and why I don’t think this type of training promotes wellness or longevity.

My story of chronic illness and running a crossfit gym for 8 years

The root of my health decline began at the age of 19 from Accutane (a common drug prescribed for acne). It was the start of chronic, painful, and always unpredictable digestive problems.

During college and my young adult life, I continued to suffer from random bouts of indigestion, bloating, and abdominal distention- this abdominal distention made me look 5 or 6 months pregnant and I've always been petite which made it very noticeable. It could be painful and it kept me from often living a normal college life. I tried to manage it with diet and the help of doctors (diagnosed me with IBS), but it persisted.

My health, despite the IBS, was decent for the next 6 years or so. However, this was all going to change for the worse the age of 24 in 2008 when I began high intensity training. After about just one year, I had new health problems.

While in my unseemingly vulnerable state of health, high intensity training took my easily inflamed and irritable gut to a whole new realm of chronic and mystery illness. It started with frequent headaches which I attributed to stress. Then some headaches turned into migraines.

The next of my conditions to arrive was the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity which arrived as an immediate migraine, nausea, weakness and fatigue from bleach, building materials, hair color, cigarettes, and anything scented.

Then the vertigo arrived. Now, these spells were SEVERE. I was completely bedridden unable to move for 7 days at a time, plus a 4-7 days to recover. I couldn't turn my head or open my eyes, let alone get out of bed to use the bathroom. I was in a debilitated and weakened state. 

The next to appear was the insomnia. Insomnia is a special kind of torture, as some of you may know. There were nights where all I could do was cry because I felt so desperate and hopelessly wanted to fall asleep. 

By the time I was 28, migraines were about a monthly occurrence. My glands were chronically swollen, I didn't sleep well, I had "bone-deep fatigue" (as I called my adrenal fatigue), and I had to be on the lookout for chemicals that would set off an MCS reaction. Living with all of this was my daily life for several years.

I thought I was taking care of my health by crossfitting and eating paleo. Afterall, I KNEW that exercise and a healthy diet is the foundation to good health. And how our cavemen ancestors functionally exercised and ate was, to me, the logical answer. 

The Hard Truth

In 2014, I started to realize my execution of this knowledge was anything but a solid foundation for good health.

It took a while for me to admit to myself, to Aaron, and to my holistic practitioner that one of the possible causes for my poor health was the same thing that I helped create and that which put food on our table. 

CrossFit was hurting my health.

The business that I poured my heart and soul into was perpetuating my chronic illnesses. 

The more I backed off of high intensity training- the heavy lifting, the high intensity circuits, and the elite athlete mentality- the better I felt. 

My fitness routine slowly became more conventional. I lifted weights, but lighter loads and higher reps. I completed circuits, but with purposeful rest incorporated. 

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Changing My Fitness Routine Meant Changing My Life

This created a disconnect between me and my business. The members felt it. The only clients I connected with were my personal training clients that saw me for corrective exercise and massage therapy. I no longer taught the crossfit group classes, except for the babyboomers. My gentle, cautious approach was just what this age group needed. 

Aaron thoroughly supported my journey. And with his own objections, he eventually grew tired of the fitness business. He grew tired mentally and emotionally from running such a personal business. And he grew tired physically from the high intensity training. 

We ended up selling the gym in 2016 and both of us set out for new careers.

The parallel story here is that once I grew out of the crossfit lifestyle and mentality, my heart was no longer in that business. Morally, I couldn't continue teaching those philosophies on fitness when I believed from personal experience that it would only harm them in the long run, not help them. 

Decreased Stress to the System is Healing

My renewed outlook on fitness has given my body the opportunity to heal. No longer am I adding significant physical stress in the form of exercise contributing to my conditions. Nowadays, I stick with Yoga, hiking, and light kettlebell and bodyweight training. 

I know I've painted a dark picture of high intensity training. It certainly can have tremendous benefits especially for those in the military, law enforcement, and firefighters. Interval training itself (high intensity or not) has wonderful benefits proven in many studies.

But, even if you are super healthy, HIIT practiced long term stresses the adrenal glands. When the adrenals are pushed to thier limit adrenal fatigue can occur.

Through personal experience and working with hundrends of adults, I can offer you this conclusion:

It is an inappropriate approach for anyone dealing with any type of chronic illness. Depending on one's lifestyle and aspirations, the execution of interval training should vary accordingly. If you're suffering from autoimmune disease, chronic Lyme, chronic fatigue, persistent gut problems, any of the same conditions I've had, or dealing with any perpetuating, chronic illness consider making modifications to your training and see if you notice an improvement in your condition.

Learn how to modify your fitness routine so that it benefits, not harms your health. Contact me here.


To your health and healing,



Mandi Palmer, “Food and Wellness Guru,” is a Holistic Certified Health Coach who has been inspiring and leading others in their pursuit of wellness since 2008. Her well-rounded approach to helping others achieve wellness includes nutrition, healthy-never-over-doing-it movement, building purpose and reslience to stress, the ancient art of qigong, comfortably cleansing, and using the published works of Anthony William, The Medical Medium.

>Disclaimer< This information is to be used for educational purposes only and is not to be used to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. The author of this article is not a doctor, licensed dietitian, or licensed nutritionist. By reading this article, you are agreeing to take responsibility for your own health and decisions regarding food and you waive the right to hold Mandi Palmer responsible for any negative instance or result that may occur after engaging with this information.