Exercise has been promoted as the magic bullet to feeling and functioning better. There are countless studies which support the numerous benefits of exercise including the release of chemicals that boost overall energy and dampen inflammation. The body and brain perform at their best when they are challenged with consistent physical activity.
But what happens when exercise actually makes you feel worse? This can be the experience for those who battle autoimmunity or brain inflammation. These people suffer from exercise intolerance in which physical activity makes their symptoms worse.
Many autoimmune and brain inflammation patients see multiple doctors before receiving a diagnosis. Most of these doctors will advise a severely compromised patient to exercise more. But until a patient’s inflammation is under control, this advice can actually intensify their symptoms.
What is exercise intolerance?
Most medical doctors associate exercise intolerance with heart disease. When the heart does not fill with enough blood, the result is insufficient blood being pumped throughout the rest of the body.
However, functional medicine practitioners see exercise intolerance in their patients who struggle with autoimmunity and brain inflammation.
It’s normal to feel sore or tired after a challenging workout. Those who suffer from exercise intolerance can experience more severe and unusual pain, fatigue, a flare up of their autoimmune symptoms, nausea, vomiting, or other negative effects that go beyond normal muscle tiredness. Some “crash” for a day or more with flu-like symptoms, feeling unable to get out of bed or function normally.
For people who are conscientiously working to improve their health, exercise intolerance can cause emotional distress. After all, the media is constantly sending messages about intense workouts along with images of uber athletes.
What causes exercise intolerance?
Exercise intolerance related to autoimmunity or brain inflammation is the result of compromised mitochondria.
Because of their sensitivity to inflammation, mitochondria will under function when the body is struggling with intense inflammation. When the cells aren’t generating enough energy, the brain also under functions leading you to feel generally crappy and fatigued.
How to exercise if you have exercise intolerance?
A common mistake people make is to push themselves too hard when they exercise. Over training increases inflammation and can make an autoimmune condition or brain inflammation worse.
Having an inflammatory condition means your immune system is in a constant state of fluctuation depending on various factors like stress, viruses, and diet. Therefore, people with autoimmunity or brain inflammation must always adjust their activity level so they don’t overburden their immune system or neurological health.
IF you are used to working out at a certain level and then suddenly notice your workout makes you feel worse, it could be an outside factor flaring up inflammation. So you need to dial it down or even take some time off. Listen to your body.
For instance, someone who does high-intensity interval (HIIT) and weight training four or five days a week suddenly feels fatigued and lethargic the day after each class. They may need to reduce the duration, the intensity, or the frequency of those workouts, or substitute in something that doesn’t push their inflammation over the edge, like a brisk walk.
Forget about cultural messaging around fitness
Managing autoimmunity and brain inflammation is highly individualized; no two people will have the same protocol. You must always be tuned in to what your body says. This can be difficult in our hyped-out fitness culture.
After all, for some autoimmune or brain inflammation folks, the mildest workouts can be triggering. The goal is to find what works for you and makes you feel good. When we stimulate blood flow through movement, it sends more oxygenation to our bodies and brains and triggers the release of beneficial chemicals. If it feels good, it’s lowering inflammation and helping you manage your autoimmunity and brain inflammation.
Autoimmune appropriate exercises for building exercise tolerance could be walks, light weight training, gentle yoga or stretching routines, water aerobics — explore and find what works for you. You are the ultimate expert on what’s right for your body. As you start to feel better you will naturally feel inclined to take on more.
Start low and slow so that you are able to stay consistent and keep it up on a daily basis. Once you have established that, then gradually increase intensity and duration.
Ask my office for more advice on managing autoimmunity or brain inflammation.
Here are some additional posts on exercise: