workouts

Exercising with an Autoimmune Disease

Having an autoimmune disease is tough. 

I mean, people know it's tough, but they don't know just how tough. 

With an autoimmune disease, you have to take in consideration everything, from what you eat, to how much you sleep, to how you exercise, to how to do your best without actually feeling your best. Doing too much or too little can make a huge difference in your day-to-day life. And that's why exercising is hard when dealing with autoimmune diseases.

First off, autoimmune diseases are finicky as hell. Too much sleep? You'll feel like crap the next day. Too little sleep? You'll feel like crap the next day. You ate dairy today? You'll feel like crap tomorrow. And to make it worse? Everyone is different. What works for one person with Lupus might not work for next. What works for someone with Celiac's probably won't work for someone with Hashimoto's. Therefore, people with autoimmune diseases can find it extremely difficult to find a balance.

And like always, what else is extremely hard for those with autoimmune issues? You guessed it, exercising. 

Exercising with an autoimmune disease is hard. I won't sugar coat it. Like everyone else, you really should exercise to feel healthy, but going to the gym might cause horrible flare-ups that don't really seem worth it. 

So what is a flare-up? In simplest terms, a flare-up is an outburst of many symptoms at once, normally caused by overexertion, poor sleep, stress, or almost anything else that affects the body in a weird way. And there's only one way to know whether or not something will cause a flare-up: trying things over and over again. 

So the only way to know that you're exercising way too much? To try and then see what happens. And then do it again but tweak it a little. Then again. And again. And probably again. This may seem like a daunting task but with time and effort, you can learn what your body needs to feel good and avoid flare-ups. 

Without further ado, here is my guide to exercising with an autoimmune disorder.

TAKE TIME TO WARM UP

You can't just jump into a workout! 

This is true for EVERYBODY! Not just those with autoimmune disorders. When you're exercising, your muscles are breaking down old muscle in order to create newer and stronger muscle. Then, the body starts to break down fat so it can have enough energy to remake this muscle bigger and better. When you warm up before a workout, your brain signals to the rest of the body to start preparing to work. For example, your heart rate gets quicker, which increases the blood flow into your joints and muscles so they have enough energy and elasticity to work out. This is why you're at risk for an injury when you don't warm up beforehand!

So what does warming up look like for someone with an autoimmune disorder? 

It's pretty simple. Just take five to ten minutes before your workout! Here's a list of my favorite (and effective!) warm-ups!

  • Stretching

  • Walking

  • Light yoga

  • Small, achievable movements

LESSEN THE FREQUENCY

Those suffering from autoimmune disorders generally should not work out as frequently as those who are not. A super common way that flare-ups occur is overexertion.

If you have a disease that affects muscles, bones, and joints, this is a big point! Exercising affects these areas the most, and if you overdo it, you could be left feeling swollen, stiff, and achy in the morning. 

However, exercising affects your entire body. For example, when you exercise, your body spends the energy it was using to aid digestion to build muscle and break down fat. Therefore, digestion is slowed down on occasion. To someone with an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system, this can really be a problem. 

But also exercise is important, right? You can't just stop exercising. To continue with the digestive system, exercising helps build muscle that can more easily aid digestion. Therefore, it's very important to exercise. 

What's too much exercise though? It depends (I know this wasn't the answer you were looking for!) and it takes time to learn what your body considers too much or too little. The only way to know for sure? Trial and error.

Want some tips to help you start?

  • Limit your workouts to a couple of days a week. If this doesn't seem like enough, do light stretching during your rest days.

  • Give your body time to rest. Autoimmune diseases wreak havoc on the human body. You don't want to have to worry about healing from exercise AND your disorder.

  • Know your body! Autoimmune diseases are often all lumped together, however, they are all so different. Do your research before you overdo it.

  • Listen to your body! If you're working out four times a week but feeling horrible every day, try lessening your workout days to three times a week and so on.

ONLY DO LOW IMPACT WORKOUTS

Don't listen to people who say that high-intensity workouts are the only workouts that have results. Some people can run ten miles, some people can lift fifty pounds of weights, some people prefer doing handstands in yoga. Exercising is exercising. Your body will appreciate any effort you put in!

With that being said, those with autoimmune diseases shouldn't judge themselves based on other peoples standards. Your joints might work differently than other people's or your stomach might be super finicky. When you do high-intensity workouts, your body increases cortisol (AKA the stress hormone), which can cause flare-ups and hurt your joints and muscles. If you only walk on the treadmill for fifteen minutes, your body will notice it, whether you can physically tell or not. Exercise is always better than no exercise. Always.

So have you thrown out the societal idea of high-intensity exercising? Great! Want to know my favorite low-intensity workouts? Here they are:

  • Light yoga

  • Pilates

  • Low-intensity weight training

  • Walking on the treadmill

  • Low-intensity stationary biking

Now, where should you start? Pick a workout and stick to it for a week and see how you feel, then adjust.

DON'T WORKOUT FOR TOO LONG

I know what you're thinking. Could this be any vaguer?

The truth is this: having an autoimmune disease sucks and it takes time to learn how to make it suck less. Therefore, you have to spend weeks, months, years, on perfecting your day-to-day habits. And another truth? It might change (even after all that hard work!) But there's nothing you can do but try and try again. 

With that being said, you (again) have to listen to your body on this one. Like I said previously, the main cause of flare-ups is overexertion. If you work out for too long, you might seriously feel it the next day. So instead of focusing on duration, focus on consistency. Twenty minutes a day adds up to about an hour of exercising if you do it only three times a week. And if you continue it the next week? And then the next? Your body will thank you, big time.

Not to mention, the longer you work out, the more likely you are to get hurt. At some point, your body won't be able to take it anymore, and you could pull a muscle, break a bone, or tear a joint. With those with autoimmune diseases, this can be a big deal. Hurting a muscle can ensure it will never heal or be right again. So the best thing to do? Avoid getting hurt. How do you avoid that? Limit your work out durations to something you know your body can handle.

So, here are my tips on figuring out the right duration for you:

  • Start at fifteen minutes a day, including your warm up. Do this for a week. If you feel the same (or hopefully better!) after the week is over, bump it up to twenty.

  • Take adequate breaks when you're working out. A twenty-minute work out can be bumped up to twenty-five minutes if you take five one minute breaks in between. 

  • When you do take breaks, drink plenty of water and make sure you're giving your body time to cool down properly.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY

But wait! Isn't this what this whole article has been about? Yes!

I've said it before (many times) and I'll say it again. Listen to your body! The only way to make sure you're doing what is right for you is by keeping track of how you feel. If you've been hurting more lately, maybe ease off a bit. 

It can take a while to get to know your body. But it is well worth it in the end.

There are three main ways to alter your workouts and make sure you're doing what's right for you:

  • Duration

  • Consistency

  • Intensity

Monitor these and hopefully, you'll be feeling better in no time!

What else can you do?

  • Drink plenty of water

  • Eat well

  • Get adequate sleep

  • Warm up before workouts

I hope you enjoyed this article on how to exercise with an autoimmune disorder! Want to know even more? Check out the rest of my blog or feel free to comment down below! I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

Love, Molly

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