The Four Factors You Need To Consider When Exercising With Autoimmune Disease


Finding the right type of exercise for your body is a nuanced and evolving process as we heal our autoimmune disease. As previously discussed exercise is a stressor on our bodies that we must manage alongside other physical and emotional stressors, including our chronic illness. 

People living with autoimmune disease need to approach exercise differently than “the standard american way”. We can not approach exercise with a “no pain no gain” mindset. Our mindset has to be flipped on its head: if there is pain, there is no gain

If we push our body past its limits we can experience an exercise induced symptom flare and the exercise progress and strength we built may be set back as we heal. These types of flares may not manifest directly after exercise so we must pay special attention and track activities, stressors and symptoms to determine the cause of a flare.

So how do we find the right exercise when facing exercise intolerance leading to symptom flare ups? As with many things in our healing journeys this is not one size fits all. There are four main factors to consider when approaching exercise:

  1. Intensity

  2. Duration

  3. Frequency

  4. Type

This refers to how often you exercise. Exercise doesn’t work when you do it sporadically, or if you do a lot of it in a one week period and then stop. 

In order to reap the optimal benefits of exercise, you must exercise consistently over time. Ideally, this should look like daily exercise with rest days incorporated- but if this is too much, in the beginning, you can work up to it. The most important thing is to be consistent, so if that means that you exercise one day and then take two days of rest, then you need to make sure you get back to exercise and repeat.

This refers to how long each exercise session should be. If you are consistent with your exercise, it doesn’t need to be that long. Frequency is more important than duration when it comes to managing autoimmune symptoms, and exercising without flare-up. A lengthy workout session has more of a chance of overstimulating cortisol, so keeping it short is best. However, how you define short depends on your level of fitness. If you are someone who is newly diagnosed, or new to a fitness regiment, short should mean 10 to 15 minutes per session at the most. And many people need to start with even less, at 1 to 5 minutes. Remember- everyone needs to start somewhere. You need to start with what works for your body. 

This refers to how hard your workout is for you. This means how much you push your body, how heavy your weights are, how far you run, how sweaty you get, how fast your heart beats, and how quickly you get out of breathe. 

Typically, when we think of exercise, we think we want it to be intense. But this does not hold true for people with autoimmune disease. Generally, the rule of thumb is that people living with autoimmune disease should keep the intensity low to moderate, especially when starting out. Exercise should not exhaust or deplete you- you should have enough gas left in the tank to be able to still get through your day. 

The right kind of exercise is one that is progressive, and builds in intensity just a little bit, slowly, over a long period of time. This slow building process of intensity helps our body adapt to the challenge without freaking out and shutting down with a flare-up. 

This refers to the style of exercise. Generally, any style of exercise can be adapted to follow the rules listed above. However, a note of caution: exercises that really ramp up cortisol, such as HIIT training, spin class, and Crossfit WODs, as well as any kind of cardio such as running or elliptical should be done with extreme caution. These types of activities are significantly more likely to stimulate an exercise-induced flare-up.

We know autoimmune disease symptoms improve with exercise so with these factors in mind the approach to exercise, while different for every person, starts slowly. My recommended approach to use gentle strength training combined with flexibility and mobility training. Start with low-intensity and low duration and after a few successful weeks of consistency without flare-up, you can build intensity and duration over time. Cardio, such as walking, can use this same approach for building to a level you are comfortable with while staying healthy.

The Autoimmune Strong exercise program is built around these four factors- and is designed to help you exercise in a safe and effective way, without flare-up. So, if you are ready to start exercising in a way that works best for your body, but don’t know where to start, check out the Autoimmune Strong website

Andrea Wool