As somebody who has always had a passion for sport and exercise, it’s been a topic I’ve wanted to discuss in relation to psoriasis for a while.
Studying sport during my school years and being completely dedicated to my hockey teams, I never missed a week of training. However, I’m the first to admit that throughout university my participation in sport dropped completely, with the addition of psoriasis, I’m finding it even harder to get back into any form of regular exercise – the confidence to visit the gym in particular.
With that in mind, it was time to speak to someone in the know! Ali Woodward (aliwoodward_fitness), a competitive powerlifter and fitness coach has kindly agreed to discuss life in the fitness industry when living with psoriasis. Also, he’ll be offering us some advice on getting back into sport when suffering with the chronic illness.
I have had psoriasis for over 6 years now, having been diagnosed with it at aged 17. However, my first serious flare up did not fully emerge until I finished climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when I was 19, which saw a great deal of travelling and bad skin trauma due to high UV levels on parts of the mountain. Since then, psoriasis has basically become a second shadow.
I got into weight training and fitness as a result of my decision to climb kilimanjaro. I wanted to pull myself back into shape following a bad bout of mental health issues. Once kilimanjaro was done, I lifted and trained purely for aesthetic purposes. 6 months later, I was lean and muscular, far more confident and happy with how I looked.
However, psoriasis began to rear its ugly head pretty soon after that. With abs, came itchy read sores that began to plague my body. I began to look for treatment immediately, I had a holiday booked, and after all my hard work, the last thing I wanted was for people to stare at my skin over the body I had worked hard to build. I used Dovabet gel and sun beds, a combination that was very very successful, albeit a very expensive and risky one. The holiday passed and my skin had not been an issue.
Sadly, the theme of appeasing my psoriasis failed to continue through life at uni. Instead, as I worked harder and harder in the gym, looking and feeling better and better, my psoriasis just got worse and worse. The sores had spread from my sides, to all over my lower abdomen, back and legs. By the end of university, I was ridden with it.
Having decided against a career in law, hoping to follow my passion for fitness that had manifested itself so much at university, my confidence was completely shattered. I didn’t want to take my clothes off in changing rooms in fear someone would stare and ask questions. I stopped taking any progress pictures, despite working my arse off to make progress. In summer 2015, having graduated from university, I was on a beach in Spain, where a man came over and asked if I had a disease, taunting me for having red blotches on my skin. It absolutely gutted me, and I quickly put my top back on. That signalled a massive shift in my confidence with my skin.
In the year since, my skin has continued to worsen and better itself, in random peaks and troughs. Having entered the world of work and the stresses that entails, the condition has continued to spread, despite the fact I enjoy what I do so much. Consequently, I have seen no desire to take progress pictures and instead focus only on the numbers I hit when I train. I often wear rugby socks and my protective knee sleeves around my shins when I train, and only ever wear tracksuit bottoms when I coach people, to prevent people seeing and asking about it. I have become fixated with the idea that there is no end in sight, and that it’s better to just become comfortable with the condition than fear it. I won’t flaunt my skin, but I no longer see the need to be ashamed of something I can’t help.
Admirably, Ali has turned his attitude towards psoriasis around, but how can we begin that same journey in the world of fitness fanatics and perfectionists? Here is some advice from the powerlifter himself:
What advice would you give someone eager to join a gym, but fearful of the judgement they may receive of their psoriasis?
Firstly, it depends massively on the areas in which the psoriasis is most prevalent. I found my torso was affected the most to start with so I kept my vests to a minimum and wore-t shirts and sweaters. As it has spread, I have done all I can to cover it, but frankly it became such a struggle that over time I have learned to accept that people may just have to see it. Flare ups are part of the condition, and when sweaty, you’re not going to be hiding anything that well. My best advice is pretty simple. Training at a gym always comes down to mindset. You are at the gym to improve yourself, that is your choice and you have control over that, a control you don’t really have with psoriasis. No judgement or stares should deter you from that. Put your headphones in and focus on you!
Do you think your exercise regime improves your psoriasis? Has it improved about how you feel about your condition?
It is hard to qualify whether mine or anyone’s psoriasis is benefited by exercise. Some science claims that exercise lowers inflammation within the body, an issue that worsens psoriasis, so there is certainly a physiological case to be made. However, be sure that you watch out for any gym clothing that can cause friction, and damage the skin. Ensure you shower soon after exercise, too.
Mentally, my training has been such a huge source of enjoyment and has relieved stress to such an extent, that I feel there is no doubt it has prevented flare ups from being worse or more prolonged. I can confidently say, if you feel you have bettered to appearance of your body having trained hard, the impact your psoriasis has on self-esteem is lower, considerably so for me. Again, it is the mindset, if you enter a gym and you are bettering yourself, your body and the skin you’re in become a much more comfortable place to be.
Get your skin out and train!
Do you have any advice on clothing or fabrics in the gym for psoriasis sufferers?
Clothes wise, take care not to wear anything too tight. Anything that rubs the skin can be seriously detrimental, and I found I started seeing new sores in my arm pits as a result. I’d recommend loose fitting clothes and if you’re confident, vests and shorts so the skin can breathe!
Make sure you bring a towel to wipe your sweat off, if you get sweaty your clothes tend to rub more. After, ensure you shower properly and immediately and change into clean clothes. I’ve been stuck in traffic in gym kit and I can feel my skin itching as my sweaty clothes rub against me.
Also, drink tonnes of water, avoid high sugar energy drinks.
There’s no doubt here that Ali’s positive mental attitude is key, knocking any psoriasis worries aside whilst in the gym. However, for many of us who aren’t yet at this point, the National Psoriasis Foundation make an extremely valid point that we should all remember: “You decide what is achievable.”
It reads a fairly simple statement, but so many of us try to push ourselves past our comfort zones too early or dive in at the deep end instead of taking baby steps. As with any goals at the gym, it is important to consider both the long and short term. Maybe to get back into the gym with psoriasis, all it takes is short term goals in relation to building confidence showing your skin. From there could lead the pathway to being fully comfortable in often such an aesthetically obsessed environment.