Regular exercise is a vital part of good health, this doesn’t change for people with autoimmune diseases, in fact getting regular exercise is key in managing autoimmune disease and the symptoms that come along with it. The most important thing to remember is that your body is not the same as it was before you became ill so it may not respond to exercise the same; when exercising with an autoimmune disease you need to think more in terms of what is therapeutic than anything else, do not push yourself too hard for the sake of “fitness.”
My personal motto as someone living with Multiple Sclerosis is “keep moving to stay moving,” getting regular exercise prevents loss of mobility. There’s a number of reasons that exercise is important and helpful to those living with autoimmune diseases. Exercise helps boost the immune system, which as I stated in “Autoimmune Disease + Wellness Pt. 1: Healing Yourself with Food” is important because infections in the body can cause worsening of symptoms or flare ups of autoimmune diseases, so it’s important to do everything you can to keep your immune system functioning well. Additionally exercise can help combat fatigue which is a common and very inconvenient (to say the least) symptom of most autoimmune diseases. The release of endorphins and adrenalin from exercise can often be the boost of energy needed to help make it through the day.
For people suffering from MS, chronic fatigue is often the most debilitating symptom of the disease, fortunately studies support that not only can regular moderate exercise help manage fatigue in MS patients but also pain levels. With MS also comes muscle fatigue and muscle weakness, moderate strength/weight training can help combat this and help maintain healthy muscle function. MS affects the brain and the nervous system and the signals sent from the brain to the body get lost somewhere in translation (if that makes sense) so, exercise uses that brain to body relationship and can help retrain your brain to work with your body and help fight some of the effects of the disease.
Exercise helps you obtain and maintain a healthy weight, many people attribute this to the calories burnt during exercise but actually it has a lot more to do with hormone regulation, since exercise helps regulate hormones it is very important for autoimmune diseases that affect the thyroid like Hoshimoto’s or Grave’s disease. With many autoimmune diseases mobility can be compromised and putting on extra weight is only going to make that worse, so it is important for anyone with any autoimmune disease to try to stay at a healthy weight.
As I discussed in “Pt. 1” inflammation is a HUGE issue with nearly every autoimmune disease, so in addition to a low inflammation diet, strength training can actually help fight inflammation. The antiinflammatory effects of strength or weight training can be attributed to myokines, or the proteins produced and released by muscles. It is incredibly important to make sure that what you’re doing is not counterproductive; in order to make sure that what you’re doing is actually helpful and healing rather than causing more problems and damage you need to make sure that in conjunction with exercise you are also on a low-inflammation diet and that you are not overdoing it. Pace yourself when it comes to exercise, listen to your body. If you are overdoing it and not supporting your physical activity with proper nutrition you can cause more inflammation. Overworking your body will cause it to release stress hormones which not only cause you to store fat but cause more inflammation in your body. With autoimmune diseases like RA or lupus exercise can help immensely with joint stiffness and muscle weakness in addition to inflammation, but you want to be especially careful to not overdo the exercise, be careful with your bones and joints; I recommend moderate strength training and weight training combined with low intensity activities like walking and hiking over high impact cardio like running, and if you’re experiencing pain/swelling in any certain joint or muscle take it easy on that area.
Also, we’re trying to fight fatigue here, I always look at the amount of energy I have as money in a bank and I think of what we all heard from our grandparents growing up, “Don’t spend it all in one place.” As someone with an autoimmune disease you only have so much energy in your energy bank, allocate it wisely and make sure you have enough for the things you NEED. Remember exercise should be therapeutic, do not jump right into a high intensity workout regimen, instead work your way up to it listening to your body’s needs every step of the way and resting when you need to. Give yourself time to rest and recover between workouts. I recommend doing several 20-30 minute workouts per week rather than a few hourlong ones to start, if you can get in 20 minutes a day that’s great, if you can work yourself up to hourlong workouts that’s great too. You are not the same person you were before you became ill, if you ran marathons before don’t expect to be able to go right back into running them again. Personally what works best for me that I do my best to stick to is a 20-30 minute workout three to four days a week, and then twice a week I have days where I workout between one and two hours (I rest in between hours, I never go more than an hour at a time,) mixed in with a hike here and there, always making sure I’m going to have time for a nap.
To sum everything up; exercise in conjunction with a low-inflammation diet is important in managing and combating symptoms of nearly every autoimmune disease. Studies show that regular exercise helps fight fatigue in pretty much every single autoimmune disease as well as inflammation. Regular exercise can help maintain as well as regain mobility, and is important in keeping the immune system functioning well. The most important thing to remember when it comes to exercising with an autoimmune disease is that it should be therapeutic, pace yourself, know your limits, listen to your body, and don’t push yourself too hard. And don’t beat yourself up if you’re needing a day or two of rest; this is about getting your feeling better. Stay moving, whatever that means for you, even if it’s just a walk each day.
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