Autoimmune disorders arise when the body’s immune system, which is meant to protect you from disease and infection, mistakenly attacks healthy cells as if they were invading virus or bacteria. Autoimmune diseases include arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Graves’ disease, lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome and multiple sclerosis. Some other illnesses that commonly affect women such as Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (though not classified as autoimmune diseases) have similar symptoms including fatigue and chronic pain.
Many people with an autoimmune disease go through periods of being symptom-free, and then have sudden onset of severe symptoms called flares. Often stress contributes to an oncoming period of flare. It’s understandable that when you’re not feeling well, you may – as many people do – avoid exercise as it’s difficult to find the motivation and energy to be active.
That being said, for many people with autoimmune disorders moderate, low-impact exercise and physical activity can be of tremendous benefit to their quality of life. Keeping active is especially important when you have an autoimmune for several reasons: exercise boosts physical energy; endorphin production is a natural painkiller; exercise can help reduce inflammation throughout the body; and exercise also helps combat the depression and anxiety that also often accompany this type of illness.
Here are some of our tips for exercising when you have an autoimmune illness.
1. Go at your own pace, figure out what works for you. Not everyone’s experience of autoimmune disease symptoms is the same. Start slowly with your workouts and work your way up to more challenging ones. Some days will be harder than others, adjust your workout accordingly. If you miss a day because of a flare, don’t beat yourself up about it, just make sure you get back to the gym as soon as you can.
2. Have good support systems. Talk to your health care providers about your plans to exercise and get their input. Make an appointment at your gym to have a fitness assessment with a personal trainer. It’s your trainer’s job to create a workout plan that fits your ability and helps you fulfill your fitness goals. You may also find it fun and motivating to have a fitness-buddy other than you trainer, someone who you can attend group classes with, or even just meet a designated time to hit the cardio machines or do some weights together.
3. Choose low-impact exercises. Low-impact activities are easier on your joints, back and knees. Consider exercises like walking on the treadmill, yoga, Pilates, weight training, low-impact circuit training and swimming. Add in cardio and aerobics which fit your ability levels such as rowing, stationary bike or outdoor cycling, step climbing, elliptical and dance.
4. Keep a journal of your daily activities, including when your exercise, the activities you did, and what you ate. If you find yourself overly exerted, you will probably see patterns start to emerge with when you have the most/ least amount of energy. Take these into consideration and adjust your routine accordingly.
5. Conserve your “spoons”. (If you’re not familiar with “spoon theory” already, check out this awesome article.) If you have an active autoimmune disorder you only have so much energy to spend in one day, you need to budget your time and energy as if it were money. Don’t over extend yourself or plan too many activities or appointments for one day. Prioritize self-care activities, like exercise and other things that make you feel good.
6. Give your body the fuel it needs to succeed – consider an anti-inflammatory diet. Many autoimmune disorders create inflammation in the body, which leads to muscle and joint pain, as well as fatigue. Consult with a nutritionist to see if there are diet changes you can make to help you succeed with your fitness goals.
In general, you want to consider eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetable, drinking enough fresh water and incorporating Omega 3 essential fatty acids into your diet. You probably want to avoid: lactose, red meat, white flour, processed-sugar, deep-fried foods and alcohol – all of which can lead a rise in inflammation.