Get Moving: Chronic Illness and the Benefits of Exercise

Woman wearing running shoes on the parkTrue or false: If you’re coping with a chronic illness, exercise can be one way to manage your physical and emotional symptoms.

If you said true, you are correct! In the past, doctors suggested rest and relaxation for those coping with chronic illnesses such as arthritis and diabetes. “Take it easy” and bed rest were common recommendations. However, with evidence increasingly pointing to the benefits of being active, doctors are now encouraging people diagnosed with a chronic illness to exercise.

The physical benefits of exercise can help:

  • Build a stronger heart muscle to combat heart disease.
  • Effectively lower blood sugar levels in regard to diabetes.
  • Improve muscle strength to help stabilize your back and improve muscle function.
  • Reduce pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • Control the frequency and duration of asthma attacks.

Not only can exercise help with physical symptoms, but it can improve emotional issues such as depression and anxiety as well. There is a growing body of research about the connection between our mental and physical health. In a study at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, researchers discovered people with better mental health felt less pain, while people with worse mental health felt more pain. The mind-body connection works in a positive way when we engage the “feel-good chemicals” in our brain, like serotonin and dopamine, through exercise. These neurotransmitters work to improve mood, sexual desire, appetite, sleep, and memory.

I know what you’re saying: “How can I exercise when I feel so terrible?” or “I can’t exercise; I’m in too much pain!” Those are legitimate concerns, and it’s possible that your physical activity has been limited because of your illness. Remember, though, that aerobic exercise has been found to decrease depressive symptoms and to reduce disability and pain among people with arthritis. Who doesn’t want to feel less pain? Or have fewer symptoms?

If you are ready to get moving, here are some tips for getting started with an exercise routine:

  1. Talk with your doctor. It is imperative that you talk with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise program to determine the kinds of activities and intensity levels you can handle. Working with an experienced personal trainer who is aware of your medical concerns can be helpful when getting started in a new exercise routine.
  2. Start slowly and build up. If you haven’t exercised in a while, take time to build your endurance. A few minutes of walking is better than no minutes of walking. Your body will adapt and grow stronger with regular exercise.
  3. Choose activities you enjoy. If you like the activity, you’ll keep coming back for more. Exercising with a buddy can help keep you motivated and accountable. Alternate your activities to keep exercise fresh and energizing.

Getting started is the challenge, but the benefits are countless. I’ve never had a person I counsel in therapy say he or she wants to maintain his or her current level of pain or intensity of symptoms; everyone wants to feel healthier and stronger. I also rarely hear feedback that exercising was a waste of time or had ill effects. In fact, I hear just the opposite. The vast majority of people express feeling happier and more energized, and they often report fewer symptoms.

So isn’t it time to get moving?

References:

  1. Chapman, D., Perry, G., & Strine, T. (2005). The Vital Link Between Chronic Disease and Depressive Disorders. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2005/jan/04_0066.htm
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2012). Exercise and chronic disease: Get the facts. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-and-chronic-disease/art-20046049
  3. Nauert, R. (2010, August 2). Arthritis Pain Depends on Mental Health. PsychCentral. Retrieved from http://com/news/2010/08/02/arthritis-pain-depends-on-mental-health/16293.html

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Audra

    Audra

    July 6th, 2015 at 6:38 AM

    Have you ever heard anything bad being said about adding some form of exercise to our daily regimen? Nope? Me neither. The fact is that there is a level of exercise that [pretty much everyone can enjoy, something that will overall add health and happiness to your life. That level is of course very different for everyone, but it is a proven fact that exercise, no matter who you are, can add something beneficial to your life whether you think that this is true or not. There is something that is healing about adding a fitness routine to your life, and can even add years to your life even when you feel like it is hurting you. That is a good hurt that can’t be replaced by anything else.

  • mari lynn

    mari lynn

    July 6th, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    The one thing that I have a little beef with is that it would make more sense to encourage this before the onset of chronic illness, because it is very likely that once you become this sick you are not going to feel like getting up and getting moving in an exercise kind of way every single day. Could be a little more helpful as a preventive kind of action.

  • Stormy

    Stormy

    July 6th, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    It is pretty much a no brainer to incorporate exercise into your life, but when you are chronically ill it should also be a no brainer to seek advice from your medical provider to make sure that all of the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed and you are not embarking on something that could be harmful to you.

  • Mike

    Mike

    July 6th, 2015 at 5:34 PM

    I have several physical and mental illnesses and I know I need to exercise but I have been procrastinating. This article really woke me up. Thanks!

  • john

    john

    July 6th, 2015 at 8:05 PM

    Being able to move around w/o incredible pain is nice.
    …& don’t say, “Go swimming!”
    There is no pool in this room.
    Exercise is Great of course.
    When does the relentless pain ever end ?

  • kenzie

    kenzie

    July 7th, 2015 at 8:12 AM

    It is such a nice alternative to feeling like you always have to pop a pill for some kind of relief. Exercise is my therapy at times it seems, and I am not being funny, its like it helps me when nothing else can even come remotely close to lifting my mood.

  • Andrea Risi, LPC

    Andrea Risi, LPC

    July 7th, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    Thank you all for your comments! Exercise is an important part of everyone’s life, whether you’re struggling with a chronic illness or not. The physical and psychological benefits of being physically active are countless. Not only can exercise help prevent medical problems, it can improve the quality of life if you’re already coping with one!

  • Bron

    Bron

    October 14th, 2016 at 10:05 AM

    I have chronic fatigue syndrome and any exercise more than walking will make me exhausted and unable to do much, so please do not advice exercise is the right thing for all chronic illnesses as it’s not

  • Joseph

    Joseph

    July 8th, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    Does anyone have any thoughts on working with like a personal trainer? Surely they would have some good ideas on things that the patient could do that could be beneficial

  • Andrea Risi, LPC

    Andrea Risi, LPC

    July 8th, 2015 at 9:08 AM

    Agreed Kenzie!

    Joseph – there are personal trainers (and physical therapists) who are knowledgeable about chronic illness/pain and can offer adapted exercises when needed. Be sure to ask the trainer if he/she has solid experience with chronic illness/pain before starting.

  • Rosemarie

    Rosemarie

    July 9th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    The simple fact is that there are a lot of chronically ill people, and I will also include myself in this category although I am not sick, anyway, we are looking for the easy answer. How to drop weight fast. How to burn more calories. How to cure this or that without having to put much effort into it.
    But the truth is that all of these things are usually going to take some work, work on our part and yes even work from the medical pros that we depend on.
    There are very few easy answers in life, but there are generally some answers that it is up to us to utilize and implement into our daily lives.

  • Samuel

    Samuel

    July 10th, 2015 at 7:08 AM

    We all want the easy way out eh?

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    July 10th, 2015 at 10:02 AM

    Yes Rosemarie, many people don’t want to invest the time and effort, but the truth is that we find much more satisfaction when we do the work to achieve our goals!

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    July 13th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    In general, exercise is beneficial, but most of us look to our own experiences and fail to acknowledge that there are many forms of disease and other experiences. There are a number of chronic diseases that have what is scientifically called exercise intolerance. The disease stage often matters as well. Exercise can exacerbate diseases and is not always a preventative. For example while some research points towards exercise as possibly alleviating pain a co-morbid disorder might be made worse. Overtraining syndrome is one and there is a possible link to infections; fibromyalgia is often co-morbid with what the Institute of Medicine terms systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID). Once again in some subgroups pathogens are linked.

    When reading reports be aware that how the patient in the study is determined to have a disease makes a difference in results. And yes, exercise can be laying in bed mentally imagining yourself doing yoga. The movements are small, but can still help.

    Nothing is black and white and one size fits all.

  • deb

    deb

    July 13th, 2015 at 2:54 PM

    I really think that beginning an exercise regimen could be a great help for my dad but I swear that there are times when it doesn’t even feel like he wants to do anything to help himself anymore. I think that he wants it all to be over, and ok, I understand that but when will he understand that we still want him to be around and that he could be around a lot longer of he would just try some of these things that are recommended? I don’t think that we are being selfish… are we?

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    July 14th, 2015 at 7:56 AM

    Thank you for your input, Cindy! Yes it is imperative that people dealing with chronic illness talk with their doctors before starting any kind of exercise program to ensure that it will be beneficial and not harmful. There are ways to adapt exercise so it is valuable. Imagery is certainly another way to exercise your brain.

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    July 14th, 2015 at 8:02 AM

    Deb – It is difficult to motivate others, and even more painful to watch a loved one struggle like this! Do you offer to exercise with your Dad? Sometimes having a companion can help motivate the other person. Also, modeling the desired behavior can be more effective that advice-giving. Another suggestion would be to get a therapist involved. If your Dad refuses to talk to a therapist, perhaps you could benefit from some support…that is definitely not selfish ;)

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