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Exercise and autoimmune disease: A balancing act

Although autoimmune disease symptoms can vary depending on the tissue the immune system is attacking, most people with autoimmunity struggle with bouts of fatigue, energy “crashes,” brain fog, inflammation, and pain. These symptoms can throw a frustrating wrench in your exercise habit. Or if these reoccurring symptoms have prevented you from starting an exercise routine, take heart. Regular exercise can be one of the most effective ways to manage your autoimmune condition — you just need to heed your body’s fluctuating needs and tolerance levels.

Autoimmune disease is a condition in which an immune imbalance causes the immune system to attack and destroy tissue in the body. It is a chronic inflammatory condition that many people successfully manage through functional medicine protocols that include dietary and lifestyle strategies as well as helpful nutraceuticals.

Regular exercise is paramount in managing an autoimmune condition for the following reasons:

  • Done correctly, it produces anti-inflammatory compounds, such as endorphins and endothelial nitric oxide.
  • It improves circulation, which helps oxygenate body tissue, deliver nutrients to tissues, remove debris, and facilitate detoxification.
  • It produces chemicals that enhance brain function, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor; a healthy brain facilitates a healthy body.

How exercise may be different for the person managing autoimmune disease

Although autoimmune disease can feel like a burden, especially when you’re having a flare, many people report it has also forced them to live more balanced, healthy lives.

With autoimmune disease you typically don’t have the privilege of abusing your body to be more productive, to sleep less, to give too much, to say yes too often, and so on.

This also means you don’t always have the option of pushing yourself as hard as you’d like when you exercise. This can be hard on the ego, especially when it comes to exercising in a group situation. For instance, if you are involved in a team sport, group exercise class, or other situation that invites a competitive drive, your ego may want to do more than your body can deliver.

It’s important to pay attention to your body because while exercise has profound anti-inflammatory potential, over exercising will make inflammation worse and could trigger an autoimmune flare.

Likewise, if you’re new to exercise and afraid of triggering a flare, you may feel too intimidated by a group exercise class and looking “weak” or “lazy.”

Rest assured that’s just your ego talking and it’s best not to take orders from it if you want to prevent an autoimmune flare or excessive inflammation. Also, other people are too absorbed in their own workouts to notice yours.

Challenge yourself enough to release anti-inflammatory compounds but not so much you can’t comfortably return the next day

Many people with autoimmune disease find optimal results managing their autoimmunity by maintaining a consistent exercise schedule most days of the week.

Pulling this off means tuning in to your body to find the exercise sweet spot for autoimmune management — not too little and not too much.

Science shows using high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides the most benefits for managing inflammation, boosting circulation and oxygenation, and improving brain function.

HIIT involves exercising at your maximum heart rate for short bursts of 30 seconds to 2 minutes, followed by a rest and recover phase, and then repeating.

If you’re new to exercise, even just a few minutes a day can start to deliver HIIT’s benefits. If you’d like to improve your fitness level, incorporate HIIT into a longer workout that also includes weight training and some endurance training.

It can be confusing knowing how to safely exercise to maximize its anti-inflammatory effects without going too far. Some great online resources exist that can help you figure out safe ranges using a heart rate monitor. Gyms such as Orange Theory Fitness also use heart-rate tracking, in addition to motivational coaching, to help you dial in your sweet spot.

The beauty of HIIT is that you can adjust it to your fitness level. One person’s HIIT may be sprinting up some stadium stairs while another person’s HIIT may be doing some push-ups from the knees. Both people benefit.

Keep these tips in mind when exercising with autoimmunity:

  • Find an exercise that is fun and enjoyable. Positivity is anti-inflammatory while dread and negativity are pro-inflammatory. Making it fun will be part of the health benefits. A group class or social setting may be healthy for the same reason.
  • Challenge yourself enough to get your heart rate up.
  • Don’t challenge yourself so much you trigger a flare. The key is to be able to do it again the next day. A consistent exercise schedule will deliver the most health benefits.
  • Pay attention to your body. If you are feeling so run down you can hardly get out of bed, that is probably not a good day to go work out. If you are feeling a little run down but can function, dial back the intensity of your exercise but see if you can still perform. Sometimes a light workout helps you recover faster than not working out.
  • If you are feeling really run down while working out, it may be better to quit early than to push through.
  • Capitalize on the days you feel good to challenge yourself a little more than normal, being cautious not to overdo it.
  • Remember, this is a lifelong condition that requires lifelong attention. Make each day of exercise about the long-range journey as much as that day’s session.

Ask my office for more information on managing autoimmune disease and chronic health symptoms.

Meet the Author

DOM, AP (FL), LAc (SC)
DOM, AP (FL), LAc (SC)

Dr. Boyle D.O.M. (FL) is the founder of the Holistic Wellness Center of the Carolinas where he is the Director of Functional Medicine. He holds a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine and is acupuncture physician and primary care physician in the state of Florida. His post-graduate focus has been in the fields of functional neurology, functional immunology, and functional endocrinology.

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