Exercise and Autoimmune Illness

By Ann Wendel

Women in the Girls Gone Strong community who have been diagnosed with Hashimoto's Thyroiditis and other autoimmune illnesses often come to us for guidance with exercise and nutrition because they know that some of us on the Advisory Board (myself included) have personal experience with these conditions.

One of the most common questions I receive comes from women who have been recently diagnosed and are looking for advice on how they can continue to exercise without causing any symptom flare-ups.

If this sounds like you, as someone who has struggled with the effects of an autoimmune illness for the past seven years, I know all too well the barriers that stand in your way as you start your journey down the road to health. You may want to exercise; but, find that lack of energy, pain, injuries, or deconditioning prevent you from exercising with any consistency. I would like to give you some ideas for getting started.

One thing that all autoimmune illnesses (AI) have in common is inflammation. This inflammation affects different parts of the body and different people in unique ways. Many people with AI find that they struggle with joint and muscle pain, as well as overwhelming fatigue. An exercise program for someone with AI should support healing and health, and prevent further inflammation. A gradual and consistent program leads to the best results.

Before beginning any exercise program, you should consult with your doctor or a licensed physical therapist. You need to make sure that you are healthy enough to begin an exercise program.

autoimmune-and-exercise-ann-women-walking-450x338Easing into more movement, such as walking, is a great choice to see how your body responds and recovers. Good options for exercise in the beginning stages of healing AI include walking on level surfaces (not hiking), swimming and/or water exercise classes, stationary biking, and gentle yoga.These activities allow you to move each joint through the available range of motion without causing pain. Gentle movement is important because it nourishes the joint surfaces, prevents stiffness, and encourages deep breathing which can be helpful for pain control.

In the early stages, you don’t want to exercise to the point of fatigue. You should feel good after your session and still have energy left to do normal daily activities the rest of the day. Make sure you are not sore or overly fatigued the next day as well. If you are, then you need to do a little less the next session until your body can adapt to the exercise.

autoimmune-and-exercise-ann-exhausted-woman-outdoors-327x341It’s always best to do less than you think you can when you first start exercising. As you begin to incorporate other lifestyle changes such as eating well, sleeping well, and managing stress, some of your physical symptoms may diminish.

Many of my clients have also found that decreasing or eliminating grains, soy, and legumes from their diet increased their energy and decreased their muscle pain for the first time in years, so that may be an option. However, it's always important to discuss major changes in your diet with your primary healthcare provider, and/or a registered dietitian.

Continue your gentle program during this time, as progressing too quickly may set you back.

Try to increase the length of your session or the number of sessions per week. Gradually add new activities (light hiking, biking outdoors, bodyweight exercises, light weight lifting, and mobility exercises).

Pay attention to your body – stop doing anything that causes pain, or increases your fatigue.

Make sure that your program is helping you to move and feel better. As time goes on, you may be able to challenge yourself a bit more, but always go slowly with any new exercise, and be aware of how you feel on a day to day basis - be flexible enough to change the plan.

I have learned the hard way that pushing through a “bad” day leads to paying for it with increased fatigue and soreness for days afterward. Even months and years into your healing process, you may experience setbacks because of the changing and unpredictable way that AI affect our bodies.

If you feel that it is difficult to even get started with exercise (in general or on a given day) a good trick is to tell yourself that you will commit to ten minutes. If after ten minutes you still feel horrible, then you have permission to stop and try again the next day.

Most of the time, I find that once I am in my workout clothes and I get started, I finish the entire workout. It has been very rare for me to stop ten minutes in, because once I get started I usually feel better and want to keep going.

This trick has been helpful to many of my patients over the years, as they say it is usually just the idea of changing clothes and getting started that they find difficult. It also gives you the permission to stop without feeling guilty if you really do still feel poorly after ten minutes.

autoimmune-and-exercise-ann-coaching-client-450x338If you are new to exercise and not sure where to begin, or if you are dealing with a specific injury, a consultation with a physical therapist can get you started on the right foot.

Physical therapists are highly trained healthcare professionals who are experts in treating musculoskeletal injuries. Your physical therapist can work with your physician as part of your team. They can perform hands-on treatment to help your muscles and joints, as well as provide instruction in appropriate exercises. In my practice, I utilize many different types of manual treatment, as well as pilates, yoga therapy, and weight lifting.

Physical therapists are happy to work with you as you begin to reclaim your health through proper nutrition, sleep, stress management, and exercise. With the right program, you can successfully meet your wellness goals.

If you would like more information on autoimmune illnesses and exercise, you may find one of my new resources to be helpful. I have recorded a 30-minute webinar on this topic, which you can find all the details of here.

And, if you've been training harder and harder, only to realize that you're not getting the results you're looking for, and you want some more guidance, we can help.



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About the author:  Ann Wendel

Ann Wendel is an internationally-recognized women's health Physical Therapist (PT), a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), and a Certified Myofascial Trigger Point Therapist (CMTPT). In addition to owning and operating Prana Physical Therapy in Alexandria, VA, Ann writes, travels, speaks, and consults with other physical therapists and business owners. You can connect with Ann on Facebook and Twitter.

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