Let’s face it—getting into an exercise routine can be challenging even for a young, healthy person. How do you find the time? What type of exercise works best? And how in the world do you stay motivated? I’m already tired of thinking about it! So how can someone with an autoimmune disease, an oftentimes debilitating and undoubtedly exhausting disease, be expected to pull it off, and better yet, why bother?
It takes energy to work out but working out also gives you energy. Sounds like a pyramid scheme? Well, the good part is that although it is extremely difficult to start an exercise routine, once it becomes a habit, it will feel even harder to stop. Regular exercise is one of the healthiest and most rewarding addictions you can have. If you find yourself discouraged and confused by the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, don’t be. Even though you’re in for a tougher path, it is still one that can be traveled successfully; and keeping your body and mind fit is an extremely important part of the journey.
Benefits of Exercising with an Autoimmune Disease
Here are some benefits of exercising with an autoimmune disease:
- Improve your circulation, which allows nutrients to be delivered to tissues in your body, oxygenate the tissues, remove waste, and assist with detoxification (1).
- Produce endorphins and other anti-inflammatory compounds (2).
- Create chemicals that enhance brain function (3).
- Boost confidence, strength, and energy to take on the challenges of life with an autoimmune disease.
- Enhance your mood and fight depression, which is a huge often overlooked issue that comes with the territory when living with these invisible illnesses (4).
- Introduce you to a new community of people that can be an extra support system for you.
- Promote a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.
Although the benefits are astronomical, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure that your healthy habit doesn’t go south. Most importantly, pay attention to your body and get to know the cues that tell you when enough is enough. If you are in a group setting, be sure to set your ego aside, as it is likely you won’t be able to push your body as hard as your mind wants you to. For the healthy population, the reverse is usually true, so understand and respect your limits. You are not weak or lazy for listening to your body—you are a warrior for continuing to show up and do the hard work to better yourself. There is no magical formula for how much exercise is good for your immune system versus harmful, but keep in mind that if you over-exercise, you risk increasing inflammation or even triggering a flare rather than helping your body stay healthy. Rest intervals and even days to recover are a valuable part of your exercise routine. Most importantly, take the time to find the sweet spot where you can push yourself enough to reap the benefits while also feeling good enough to return the next day.
Tips for Exercising with an Autoimmune Disease
Here are some tips for choosing the best exercise and staying on track:
- Pick a type of exercise that you enjoy and is fun for you. If you dread your workouts, the stress can trigger more inflammation. Stay positive!
- Group or social settings are a great choice for extra good vibes, leading to even more anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Find the right amount of challenge to get your heart rate up and keep the blood pumping, but don’t overexert yourself to the point of not being able to stay consistent.
- Take advantage of the days you feel good. Challenge yourself more these days.
- If you are feeling run down one day or even mid-workout, lighten up the intensity or take the time to rest and return the next day instead.
- Keep in mind that you have a lifelong condition that requires constant attention. One day is not important—it’s the big picture that matters. Learning to thrive with an autoimmune disease is a marathon, not a sprint.
I hope this will help you gain some confidence and make the prospect of exercising with an autoimmune disease less overwhelming, but most importantly, take some time to be proud of yourself along the way. Reflect on even the smallest accomplishments and enjoy the good days. The bad days will be tough, but they will pass, and they will make the good ones that much sweeter. You are a fighter and stronger for it.
(1) “Myokines, physical activity, insulin resistance and autoimmune diseases” Immunology Letters, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016524781830302X/ Accessed 23 August 2022.
(2) “Exercise and inflammation” National Library of Medicine, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32249021/ Accessed 23 August 2022.
(3) “Exercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 2002. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Fulltext/2002/04000/Exercise_Enhances_and_Protects_Brain_Function.6.aspx./ Accessed 23 August 2022.
(4) “Physical activity and autoimmune diseases: Get moving and manage the disease” Autoimmunity Reviews, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1568997217302835/ Accessed 23 August 2022.