Should You Exercise With Autoimmune Disease?

Fatigue and joint pain stemming from autoimmune disease can make exercise feel daunting. Here’s why you should do it anyway, and how the right foods that can make it a little easier.

Photo: Malte Mueller/

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With more than 100 different autoimmune diseases out there, it’s no surprise that autoimmunity affects 1 in 5 Americans. Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and psoriasis are just a few that you may have heard of. With autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system attacks itself and this leads to inflammation and fatigue. It feels like you’re constantly battling a cold, but instead it’s your body battling itself! During flares, these inflamed body parts cannot function the way they’re supposed to. With autoimmune disease that affects the joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, finding the energy to exercise through the pain and fatigue can feel like a really daunting task. 

But, you might be surprised to learn that exercise may actually help your autoimmune disease, plus it is important for heart health, weight management and blood sugar control. 

The benefits

For those with rheumatoid arthritis, activity has been shown to improve heart health and joint mobility. It’s also been proven to improve the disease course. 

For those living with lupus, physical activity has been shown to improve heart health, psychological health and quality of life. Additionally, a systematic review and meta-analysis that looked at the effects of exercise in those with lupus showed that exercise is beneficial to help curb fatigue. 

Fibromyalgia, another autoimmune disease that causes painful flares, has also been studied. Aerobic exercise was shown to improve pain, physical health, mental health and quality of life. It helps that aerobic exercise, such as running, walking or cycling can be easily adjusted to fit your tolerance. 

The right foods can help

If you’re looking to increase your exercise, it’s important to adjust your diet as well. Make sure you’re getting a steady amount of carbohydrates throughout the day. Carbs provide energy for your exercising muscles. They often get a bad rep because of the rising popularity of the keto diet. However, carbohydrates provide plenty of fiber and nutrients that can help those living with autoimmune disorders. To help with inflammation, try to stick to slow-digesting carbohydrates like whole grains. Quinoa and oatmeal are great options. However, these aren’t always optimal to eat just before exercise because they might make you feel heavy. 

If you’re in a pinch for time, grab some berries. These provide carbohydrates and are high in fiber and anti-inflammatory antioxidants. Despite what the internet tells you, please do not drink your fruits. The sugar boost from drinking a blended banana and 2 cups of strawberries is more than you need.

Protein is also a key nutrient for supporting exercise and maintaining muscle mass, which gets even more important as we get older. Add protein to all of your snacks and meals. Plant-based proteins such as edamame, chickpeas, lentils, beans and nuts will also provide anti-inflammatory components such as phytochemicals and omega 3s. 

The protein needs for those with most autoimmune diseases aren’t any different from the general population. However, those with diseases that influence the gut such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) do have slightly higher protein needs. Speak with a registered dietitian to develop a plan to help you meet your goals.

The takeaway

It is no question that exercise can help with the symptoms of various autoimmune diseases, while improving overall health and quality of life. However, exercise is just one piece of the puzzle and should not replace a well-balanced diet, medications and any other treatment plans your health care team has put together. 

Don’t know where to start? After getting the green-light from your doctor, start with 30 minutes of physical activity. Activities like stretching and yoga can help maintain joint mobility, while also helping you  reduce stress. When you’re ready, bring in some walking or light jogging. If you can hold a conversation while you do it, that is a good sign that you aren’t pushing yourself too hard. An exercise physiologist or kinesiologist can help create an exercise program that suits your needs.

Also read How to Eat Well for Autoimmune Disease and How to Eat Well for Joint Pain & Arthritis. 

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