- Loosens joints, helping them work more effectively and reducing pain.
- Stretches muscles and tendons, making movement easier and encouraging healing.
- Increases blood flow and the activity of the heart and lungs, strengthening them against cardiovascular disease and increasing stamina.
- Encourages the body to produce endorphins, improving mood.
- Helps the body regulate its sleep cycle, encouraging better sleep.
- Tunes the signals that signal “hunger” to the brain, helping with metabolism and weight problems.
- Creates a routine, which has many benefits for productivity and mental health.
You can read more about the benefits of exercise, here, and people’s experiences with staying physically and mentally healthy.
However, people with lupus have different bodies, since their lupus manifests in different ways – some exercises may be doable, and others may be difficult. Fatigue can make keeping up a workout routine challenging, and figuring out what exercises to do at all involves sifting through an endless mess of recommendations. It’s overwhelming, and easy to do it wrong.
So, let’s get back to the basics.
The Basics of Exercising with Lupus
First, it is important to remember is that, with exercise, you aren’t aiming for a “beach body.” You are aiming for better health and reduced pain. You are aiming for something you can do, regularly, to make your life a little easier. Daily light exercise is ideal.
If daily exercise sounds intimidating, though, don’t worry – it’s not actually so scary! This is because one of the biggest key points to exercise is movement – any movement. Whether that is walking around the house or the block, doing household chores that require movement (vacuuming, for example) or simply repeated lifting of arms and legs while seated, movement gets the blood flowing and the muscles moving. Leg lifts, arm lifts, and sit-to-stands are all valid exercises.
While going for a run and having a full workout routine does have benefits, even doing a little bit, every so often throughout the day, can work wonders. These light exercises also helps to build up strength and flexibility, allowing you to handle, potentially, more intensive exercises.
However, the second key point to exercise to keep in mind is listening to your body. Everyone’s lupus hits them in different ways, and each person with lupus has different limitations. This can change day to day. While pushing yourself a little is fine and will make you stronger, pushing too much can hurt you. If an exercise hurts too much, if you can’t do it, then don’t do it – do something lower impact instead. As long as you are doing something, you get the benefits.
Thirdly, though, you need to do the exercise right. Doing exercises incorrectly can do more harm than good. Though this is more of an issue with more intensive exercises, building good habits with lighter exercises can reduce pain and strain on your joints, and ensure that the benefits outweigh the downsides of exercise. While the “right way” differs from exercise to exercise, the most common mistake that many people make is not keeping their backs straight. If this is difficult for you to do, an exercise that works on the back or ‘core’ (the muscles of the stomach, torso, and abdomen,) will be very important to you.
Of course, exercising your core and back will also make just about everything else easier, from sitting to standing to walking to lifting. It is a very important part of the body.
So, that’s where we’ll start.
Core Exercises for People with Lupus
The core, the muscles of the torso, abdomen, help keep our posture straight and all of our limbs in the most efficient and least stressful positions for movement. When they are strengthened, basic movements become less tiring and keeping those muscles in shape can open a lot of doors for people with lupus.
One of the classic low-impact exercises used to strengthen the core is the Bird Dog:
Lie down on your stomach on the floor or on a bed. Raise yourself from the ground on all fours (you might want additional padding under your knees and elbows.) Making sure to keep your back and abdomen straight, extend one of your arms forward and, on the opposite side, extend your leg back. Reach slightly, pushing away from the ground – this will keep you extended and stretch out your neck slightly. Hold for 5-10 seconds and repeat 2-3 times. You can see a video here that goes through the whole exercise.
Bridging is another exercise that you can use to strengthen the core:
Sit or lie face up on a hard floor or floor like surface (such as thin carpet.) Your feet and knees should be hip width apart. Press your shoulders into the floor and tighten your stomach muscles. Lift your bottom off of the floor and hold for 3-5 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. You can see a video on how to do a Bridge here. A longer hold or a wider foot position can make your bridge more intense – but it is recommended to start light and work up to it.
Planks and Sit Ups are also great for the core, but may be too intense or require too much bending for many people. If you feel like you can handle these exercises or your physiotherapist recommends them, do a few. Don’t worry if you can’t, though – even light crunches (a very partial sit up) may be helpful, and in the end, you are building and maintaining your strength. That’s all you need.
Other Exercises for People with Lupus
It is important for people with lupus to exercise the full range of muscles in their body, however – not just their core. Low-pain movement involves the whole body, after all. The exercises found in T’ai chi and yoga are a good place to draw from, as many of them are low-impact and low-intensity, and there are a variety of exercises that can be done standing, sitting, or lying down. These exercises are also typically done without weights or special equipment – just your own body or, at most, a chair or floor.
This makes them ideal for a home workout – as long as you rest frequently and mind your own limits.
Lady X-Size demonstrated several other easy, no-equipment exercises for people with lupus in her video for Lupus UK. You can find the video here, and we describe five good exercises for beginners below:
- Sit to Stand: Sit in a chair, preferably a shallow, firm chair (a deeper chair will lead to a more
difficult exercise, so be careful.) Sit up straight, tensing your stomach muscles and keeping your
back straight. Place your feet hip width apart just beneath your knees. When you are ready, hold
out your hands, shift your weight to your feet, and push yourself up into a standing position.
Stand for a few seconds, and then lower yourself back into a seating position slowly, keeping
your back straight. Repeat, 3-5 times.
- Leg Extension: While seated, start with your feet flat, stomach tensed, and back straight. Your
knees should be relaxed, but try to have the knees right above your feet. Extend one leg, brace
your abs, and hold your leg up. Hold it for a few seconds, then bring it back down. Repeat this 5-
10 times and then do the same thing on the other side.
- Shoulder Press: The shoulder press can be done seated or standing. Brace your stomach,
straighten your back, and lift both of your arms so that they are bent at the elbow and your
elbow is on a level with your shoulders. Push up your arms above your head, as if lifting weights
(though weights are completely optional,) and then hold for a second. Return to the level of
your shoulders – repeat this 5-10 times.
- Wall Push Up: The wall push up is similar to a normal push up, but it is less intense. Stand
against a wall and support yourself against it with your hands. The further your feet are from the
wall, the more intense your push up will be – a good start is a foot-length away from the wall,
but do whatever feels most comfortable for you. Aim for 5-10 repetitions, but do more if you
feel up to it.
- Back Tilt: This is a lying down exercise that can be done on soft surfaces such as a carpet or bed.
Keep knees folded and up, press back into the surface, and keep your shoulders straight. From
this position, tilt your legs to the side while keeping your knees together. Tilt to the other side.
Try to have your knees touch the ground with each tilt, but go as far as you can. Tilt to both
sides and repeat 5-10 times.
Walks and Exercising for Lupus
If these exercises are intimidating, think about taking a walk. Walks are a great aerobic exercise, if you can do them.
How to properly take a walk (to get the most benefit out of your walk:)
- Walk at a normal pace or one that is comfortable for you, depending on the terrain.
- Keep your back straight and try to maintain this posture through your walk.
- Try to walk for at least 30 minutes, if you can.
- Rest as needed. Stretch before and after for the best results – you will feel the difference if you do.
If you are not in a safe neighborhood or an otherwise walking-friendly place, walking around your home will do. An exercise bike will also work, but if you don’t have a bike and need something extra, walking up and down stairs may be enough.
However, if you can, going outside will be doubly rewarding – not only will you be exercising your body, you will also be getting fresh air and sunlight, which can boost mood and also help your body produce vitamin D and strength bones. Just take it at a pace that works for you, fast or slow – just keep moving and keep your back straight. Be sure to use sun protection to prevent skin damage from ultraviolet rays and bring water to keep you hydrated. Depending on your body, it is also a good idea to eat something beforehand to keep your energy levels up.
If you have a dog, walking them also lets you share exercise time with a companion, and will give you the satisfaction of getting that necessary chore done. Read more about the wonderful benefits of pets and lupus, here. Walking with family members is a great, healthy bonding experience, too.
A Few Last Points About Exercising with Lupus
For many people with lupus, their New Years resolutions involve:
“Exercise, eat healthy, listen to my body, and stay stress free.”
Exercise is a common New Years’ resolution for many people, and also, often, the first to go. However, that is because people generally aim too high – for losing a certain amount of pounds in x months, or getting a super fit body with a 6-back of abs. Their body is not ready for it. With exercise, you aim low to start, and you stay constant – that is how you get the most out of it and build both the habits and strength that you need. Exercising is so vital for lupus warriors, and so important to keep up regularly, that you should make it as easy to do for yourself as you can.
First, do exactly that – aim for every day. Whatever you have to do to make it happen that day, do it – whether that’s only doing half of your usual repetitions, doing a slightly easier version of the exercise than you are used to doing. Or, even, doing a different exercise entirely that is more comfortable. You might see this, initially, as a “step back,” but that isn’t the case.
Exercising with lupus is something you will have to take one day at a time. Even if you only do a little exercise, even if it doesn’t feel like enough, something is more than nothing, and you are getting benefits. Plus, you are keeping your muscles primed so that you will be able to return to your normal routine much more seamlessly than otherwise.
If you experience pain or soreness after exercise, take frequent breaks during the exercise. Afterwards, use heat to ease sore joints – moist heat, such as showers, work best. Try to avoid injury as best you can – if injured, rest, apply cold to the injury, and elevate the injury if possible (RICE.) Doing your exercises properly will help prevent you from being injured – listen to your body, and don’t go too far.
Embrace technology to help you exercise. Distracting yourself with videos helps take the mind off of the discomfort of exercise routine. Put on music while doing household chores, and do a little dance here and there to get the blood pumping. Use games like Justdance and Wiifit to turn exercise into a social, fun activity – something you can do with the whole family. Find a strategy that works for you and have fun with your exercise!
Keep your exercising up, and do it regularly, though – and you will see benefits. You will feel better.
Finally, though, forgive yourself if you slip a little. You are only human.
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