5 Tips for Exercising with Chronic Illness

At some point in your life, you’ve engaged in some kind of physical activity. Maybe you were an athlete as a child, take your dog for regular walks, or enjoy the serenity of a yoga class. Then you were hit with the diagnosis and progression of your chronic illness, causing you to slow down exercise frequency and intensity. Or maybe stop altogether. 

Chronic illness comes with a slew of symptoms like chronic fatigue, pain, inflammation, anxiety, and even depression. 

While experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to promote health, prevent and treat illness, you may have found yourself wondering how on earth you’re supposed to exercise when you physically feel too sick to.

A degree of exercise intolerance is common in people with chronic illnesses. Sometimes too little activity is hindering their recovery, while for others, too much activity can be harmful. Each chronic disease affects the body differently so important to learn to recognize the time and place for exercise when it comes to recovery from your illness. 

Getting Started with Exercise

When you start exercising with a chronic illness, it’s important to get moving on the right foot. Here are a few tips for getting started:

1.Walk, don’t run

Walking is one of the more underrated types of exercise and in recent years, has been proven to be a great way to improve or maintain your overall health. A study of 50,000 walkers, both male and female and of various ages, found that walking at an average brisk pace was associated with a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 24 percent reduction in risk of dying from heart disease. 

Brisk exertion is unique to each individual, which is why this study is valuable. What’s brisk for a healthy person in their mid-20’s will be vastly different from that of a person in their mid-40’s with a chronic illness. This means that walking at a pace that puts a little pep in your step, whatever pace that is for you, is exactly what you need to improve your health

2. Choose low-impact and low-intensity exercise

Low-impact exercises are exercises that are easy on your joints and ligaments. Some common types of exercise include (you guessed it) walking, swimming and water aerobics, cycling, rowing, pilates, and yoga

While you may not feeling like you are exerting a ton of energy during low-impact exercise, it comes with benefits like improved strength, reduced blood pressure, lower stress, less recovery time, and reduced risk of injury.

Not all low-impact exercises are low intensity. Swimming is a low-impact exercise, however, if you’re trying to swim a certain number of laps in a short time, it’s going to be a pretty high-intensity workout. 

study found that low-intensity exercise for patients with chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and obesity, improved their conditions significantly. They found that low-intensity exercise for 30 minutes, 3-5 days per week improved their cardiovascular health, lipid levels, reduced blood pressure, and reduced body fat. 

Low-intensity exercise is more beneficial for someone with chronic disease because the exercise of higher intensity promotes the release of a stress hormone called cortisol, which can lead to more pain and inflammation. Symptoms are already common in people with chronic illnesses. Instead, low-intensity exercise can help reduce cortisol levels and minimize inflammation. 

3. Start slow

If your chronic illness has kept you from exercising for an extended time, start slow. Going from no exercise to 30 minutes of exercise every day will likely lead to some unwanted repercussions, like more fatigue, soreness, pain, and inflammation. You may feel so awful that you don’t want to try it again. 

Start with 10 minutes of your choice of exercise, once or twice a week, and slowly increase the duration and frequency that feels right for you. The key to successfully increasing exercise is to listen and honor your body. If you have exercise planned and wake up with more intense symptoms than normal, it’s probably better to give your body the tender love and care it needs and skip the workout that day. 

4. Focus on recovery

Recovering from exercise is just as important, if not more important than the exercise itself! Proper recovery from exercise reduces the risk of injury, helps the body heal itself, and allows for a better session next time. Some things you can do for recovery after exercise include:

  1. Drinking water
  2. Eating a nutritious meal
  3. Low-pressure massage 
  4. Stretching
  5. Compression garments
  6. Cold showers
  7. Epsom salt bath
  8. Spend time in nature

If you’re battling a range of symptoms, whether from exercise or specifically from your illness, try incorporating a few items from the list above throughout the day. 

5. Work with a professional 

Having a proper diagnosis and following the advice of medical professionals is a critical part of recovering from a chronic illness. Working with a physical therapist (PT), occupational therapist (OT) or personal trainer can help you learn how to exercise properly and avoid movements that may cause unnecessary strain. 

Leveraging a professional can be a lifesaver for anyone at any age who finds they need extra support in regaining strength, increasing the range of daily activities, finding motivation and inspiration, and creating a sustainable exercise plan. 

The benefit to working with professionals like PTs, OTs, and some trainers, is that oftentimes it is covered by insurance. While there are several factors like insurance carrier, diagnosis, in-network provider, and progress during treatment, the likelihood is high that you will receive some financial support to seek professional help. 

Planning Ahead

Living with a chronic illness often means you can’t account for every hurdle ahead. By acknowledging this and understanding there may be some limitations, focus on what you can do instead of the things you can’t. Recovery is a slow and consistent effort over a long period of time. During this time, it’s important to strengthen and nourish your body every step of the way. 

As physical activity levels increase, take time to measure your progress, pat yourself on the back for each win and share your wins with others. At PatientsLikeMe, there are thousands of patients who struggle with chronic illness and are sharing their wins every single day. Join the conversation and let other people know that there is hope and healing ahead. 

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