Discovering the Benefits of Exercising With an Autoimmune Disease

Exercise is an interesting topic in the world of autoimmune diseases. What type should we do? How much of it do we need? Are there specific concerns regarding cardio or other strenuous activities?

After several years of living with vasculitis, I’ve found the answers aren’t all that complicated. If I move my body in a way that I enjoy, the effects are noticeable — and I have fun at the same time.

Finding my own pace

My mother has run distance races in multiple cities, including St. Petersburg, Florida, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and other faraway locales. And they weren’t your average 5K races, either; this woman has completed several half- and full marathons. She trains impressively and always manages to get a respectable time.

My friends know that running is not for me. I would rather undergo several hours of manual labor involving muscle strain and remaining in one place than run the way Mom does. It’s just not my cup of tea.

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Walking is easier on the body. Low-impact movements are kinder to my knees and hips, and I can take my dog along for companionship. Given the choice, I’ll always walk the same distance as others run, even if it takes two or three times longer. It’s not right or wrong, it’s simply my preference.

I do have another favorite choice for a workout regimen: weight training. This involves standing nearly still and focusing on precision and strength, something that’s good for my concentration as well as my physical health. Each movement in my body needs to be optimal for what I can control, without giving in to bad form. The cardio comes as a side benefit, especially if I add a Tabata workout or high-intensity interval training.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “I’m still sick with vasculitis, and sometimes it’s all I can do to have enough spoons to get through the day, let alone a workout routine!” I understand. It isn’t something I would have been able to do in the early stages of my illness. And I recognize that I’m fortunate to be in remission, which makes weightlifting a possibility for me.

Chasing endorphins

It all started for me in 2013, when I realized I needed a physical outlet. Having no experience whatsoever in the fitness world, I found a website called Fitness Blender. It is now a decent-sized company with multiple employees and hundreds of videos, but at the time, it was just a husband-and-wife team that led fun workout routines accessible to beginners.

I was immediately hooked. The endorphins that workout sessions released made the time spent well worthwhile, even if I didn’t physically feel stronger yet. It gave me a new perspective on holistic approaches to health, and I could see how much better I felt in mind and body, even before I took my daily medications.

After about a year of training four to five times per week, I noticed certain things that had been challenging before weren’t so difficult anymore. Practicing my instruments, yardwork or gardening that required uncomfortable positioning, and even making the bed were easier and less stressful on my body. My back in particular had developed a new level of strength, though I felt improvement in my arms and shoulders as well.

My mind was clearer, my body felt tighter, and my confidence soared. Any weight-bearing exercise is, of course, a type of therapy. The release of serotonin and dopamine sends powerful “happy chemicals” to the brain, lifting spirits and improving overall health for the day. My mental perspective completely shifted to a more optimistic one.

I welcomed weight-bearing exercise as another type of outlet, too. In recent years, with a cross-country move and multiple life changes, I had experienced severe frustration and depression that quickly led to anger. I didn’t like the feeling of my emotions being out of control. During a workout, I found almost instantaneously that lifting weights released much of that pent-up steam and let me relax.

Weight training doesn’t have to match the intense regimen of Rocky Balboa, and you don’t need to work toward chiseled abs. Something as simple as a 1-, 2-, or 5-pound dumbbell can have a significant impact on your arms and torso without giving you too much uncomfortable resistance. If it helps, think of it as toning, a milder form of lifting that doesn’t rely so much on building mass.

Regardless of the place you occupy in your vasculitis journey, I want to encourage you to find an exercise that works for you. Before you know it, you might be where I am: a serious amateur who uses it to my advantage to feel better. Of course, if you do plan to try any type of exercise or other physical activity, make sure to consult your healthcare team. These are things that work for me and may not work for everyone.

For me, weightlifting means health, empowerment, and confidence.

Note: ANCA Vasculitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ANCA Vasculitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ANCA vasculitis.