Most people with autoimmune disease experience varying symptoms depending on the tissue in the body that is being attacked by the immune system. Unfortunately, the symptoms most people with autoimmunity share in common – like fatigue, energy “crashes, brain fog, inflammation, and pain don’t make you want to get up and exercise! The fact is that regular exercise can actually be one of the most effective ways to manage your autoimmune condition if you can learn to recognize your body’s needs and honor its limitations.
Many have found regular exercise to be a critical component in managing their chronic inflammatory condition along with dietary changes and helpful nutraceuticals. Here are just some of the benefits of incorporating regular exercise into your self-care regimen:
- At an appropriate intensity, it produces anti-inflammatory compounds, such as endorphins and endothelial nitric oxide.
- It improves circulation, which helps oxygenate body tissue, deliver nutrients to tissues, remove debris, and facilitate detoxification.
- It produces chemicals that support brain function, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor; a healthy brain facilitates a healthy body.
Special considerations for the autoimmune patient looking to start or maintain an exercise habit
Autoimmune disease can definitely feel like a burden at times, especially when symptoms are triggered, but it can also be highly motivating to live a more balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Learning healthy boundaries that align with your available energy can help you avoid pushing your body too hard, getting too little sleep, giving too much, saying yes too often, etc.
This is why it is so crucial to stay in tune with your body’s signals. While appropriate levels of exercise can reduce inflammation, over-exercising can increase it, triggering an autoimmune flare. Don’t feel like you have to push yourself beyond your limits, even if your ego tries to convince you to keep up with the other people on your team or in your exercise class. It may be demanding more than your body can actually deliver.
If you’re afraid of being judged as “weak” or “lazy,” just remember, the people around you are probably too absorbed in their own workouts to pay much attention to yours. It’s always best to go at your own pace rather than risk an autoimmune flare. When it comes to exercise and autoimmunity, more is not better.
Challenge yourself enough to release anti-inflammatory compounds but not so much you can’t comfortably return the next day
For most, the optimal habit to manage autoimmunity involves moving your body most days of the week. In order to find that sweet spot – not too much and not too little – pay attention to how your body is responding to exercise.
Research shows that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides the most benefits for managing inflammation, boosting circulation and oxygenation, and improving brain function.
HIIT involves exercising at your maximum heart rate for short bursts of 30 seconds to 2 minutes, followed by a rest and recover phase, and then repeating.
If you’re building a new exercise habit, you can experience the benefits of HIIT by starting with just a few minutes per day. Take your fitness to the next level by incorporating HIIT into a longer workout that also includes weight and/or endurance training.
The best way to exercise safely is by using a heart rate monitor to find the right intensity that will maximize the anti-inflammatory benefits without going too far. You can search through the plethora of online resources to help you calculate your target heart rate training zone. Some gyms, like Orange Theory Fitness, use heart-rate tracking along with motivational coaching to help you find your sweet spot.
One of the many benefits of HIIT is that it can be customized to each individual’s fitness level. One person’s HIIT may be sprinting up some stadium stairs while another person’s HIIT may be doing some push-ups from the the knees. Both will reap rewards.
Consider these guidelines for balancing exercise and autoimmunity:
- Make it fun! A positive, enjoyable exercise experience is anti-inflammatory while a negative, dull experience is pro-inflammatory. Combining exercise and social interaction, like taking a group class or walking with a friend, can also increase the enjoyment factor while providing additional health benefits.
- Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to get your heart rate up.
- Know when to dial down the intensity so you don’t trigger a flare. You should be able to workout the next day. Exercising consistently will deliver the most health benefits.
- Stay in tune with your body. Take a day off from working out if you feel run down and find it hard to get out of bed. If you are feeling tired but can still function, reduce the intensity of your exercise and see how you perform. If you notice that exercising makes you feel even worse, it’s probably better to quit early than push through. At other times, a light workout may help you recover faster than no workout.
- Take advantage of the days when you feel good and try challenging yourself a little more than usual, always being careful not to overdo it.
- Keep in mind that this is a lifelong condition that requires lifelong attention. Each day you move your body, appreciate both the short-term boost and long-term benefits of consistent exercise.
Contact my office to learn more about managing autoimmune disease and chronic health symptoms.