If you've been living with lupus and exercise is the last thing you feel like doing, read on! Committing to regular exercise is difficult for most healthy people. And, for someone diagnosed with lupus, it may be even more difficult. But, lupus and exercise need to coexist for the reasons I'll explain below.
Lupus and fatigue go hand in hand. It's true - people with lupus often suffer from horrible fatigue. I know, I know - while the last thing you feel like doing when fatigued is exercising, do it anyway! I had a co-worker many years ago who suffered from lupus - not only did she work full-time at a very demanding job, but she religiously exercised every day before work. She would get up at 5am, throw her kayak in the river behind her house, and paddle for at least an hour.
We were all amazed at her energy - she swears that the kayaking turned her life around. She claims she would not have been able to make it through her day at work without it. Studies do confirm what she told us - patients who engage in regular aerobic exercise for lupus can reduce their level of fatigue and have more energy throughout the day.
One of the unfortunate facts about lupus is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for people diagnosed with this autoimmune disorder. The statistics show that people with lupus have a significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease than those without lupus. Participating in regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise like walking, can greatly decrease your risk of heart disease.
Being overweight is an issue for most Americans, and it can be even more of an issue for people with lupus. Lupus zaps your energy and often makes exercise painful, so exercise takes a back seat. But, being obese only makes matters worse - it adds to your fatigue and puts extra strain on your already inflamed and painful joints (lupus joint pain is common).
If you were not overweight before your lupus diagnosis, realize that lupus and weight gain often go together - if you're on steroids (a group of common lupus drugs) to reduce your inflammatory symptoms, weight gain can be a troubling side effect. So, healthy exercise and healthy eating are even more important!
People with lupus are especially prone to osteopenia (the pre-cursor to osteoporosis) and osteoporosis. In fact, studies have shown that the loss of bone mass can be as high as 46 percent in people with lupus. Weight-bearing physical exercise is an important part of osteoporosis prevention and treatment.
People with lupus can suffer from sleep problems due to pain and worry. Studies prove that aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to improve sleep. Lupus is a chronic disease that can also cause a lot of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, releases feel-good hormones that help reduce stress and anxiety. And, aerobic exercise has been found to work, for some, as effectively as prescription medications in treating depression.
Aerobic exercise is a great place to start. Doing aerobic exercise will increase your heart rate, burn calories, release those feel-good hormones, help give you energy and cut down of fatigue, and build endurance. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days will benefit you the most.
Because lupus can cause inflammation, low-impact aerobic exercises are the best place to start. If you've received a lupus diagnosis, walking as exercise is ideal (please check on my many pages on walking as exercise). If, because of your lupus, joint pain is too much and walking is too hard initially, try swimming or biking.
The thing to remember about swimming and biking, however, is that they are non-weight bearing exercises (your skeletal frame does not have to support your full body weight). This causes little stress on your skeleton. Bones react to external stresses by getting stronger.
So, in non-weight bearing exercises, your bones do not have significant stress on them, and do not benefit - this is a downside if you have or at risk for osteoporosis. So, bike or swim when you have a lupus flare, but add a weight-bearing aerobic activity back into your program when you can.
Exercises that stretch your muscles and incorporate breathing and mind-work can result in both physical and mental benefits. Tai chi, Chi gong, yoga and Pilates are perfect examples - these exercises can help to reduce anxiety and depression, improve balance, and strengthen and maintain range of motion in your joints - important benefits for everyone, but especially for those suffering from the lupus disease. See if you can fit two or three sessions into your weekly schedule.
Working out with weights or doing strength training exercises will build muscle, strengthen bones, increase your metabolism and make you feel so much better. Three sessions a week is all you need to reap the health benefits of this type of exercise.
If you are just starting out with an exercise program, and aren't sure where to begin, it may be best to have a professional evaluate your level of exercise ability. The lupus disease can be unpredictable - you may feel absolutely fine one day and then the next day have a lupus flare.
Realize that you will need to adjust your level of activity depending on how you're feeling that day. You may also find that too much exercise may cause a flare of your lupus symptoms. Over time, you'll be able to determine the best balance of activity and rest for you and your level of disease.
To read more about different exercises, go to my page on types of exercise. If you also suffer from, or want to prevent, osteoporosis, please check out my pages on osteoporosis - as I stated earlier, people with lupus have a greater incidence of osteoporosis than others. Knowledge is power! Finally, don't forget to read about lupus and diet. Both exercise and nutrition are important for managing your lupus disease, as well as living a healthy lifestyle!