If you have systemic lupus, one of the best things you can do to manage the disease is to become as physically fit as possible.
Studies show that physical exercise can lower the risk of heart disease in lupus patients and is also beneficial in decreasing the risk of osteoporosis. Exercise can also be helpful in managing fatigue and pain and improving overall quality of life for people with lupus.
How Does Exercise Help Lupus Patients?
Here are a few ways that exercise can benefit people with lupus:
- Fatigue. “Being physically active helps prevent fatigue, a major symptom of lupus,” says Amita Bishnoi, MD, a rheumatologist who treats lupus patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Studies have shown that lupus patients who participate in an aerobic exercise program are able to reduce their level of fatigue and have more energy throughout the day.
- Cardiovascular benefits. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people with lupus. If you have lupus, you’re at risk of getting heart disease up to 20 years sooner than the general population. Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise like walking or biking, can decrease your risk of heart disease.
- Obesity. Obesity is a common problem in people with lupus. Obesity can increase your level of pain, put more strain on inflamed joints, increase your risk of heart disease, and make your fatigue worse.
- Osteoporosis. Women with lupus are especially vulnerable to osteoporosis. Loss of bone mass has been reported to be as high as 46 percent in these patients. Weight-bearing physical exercise is an important part of osteoporosis prevention.
- Sleep disturbances. People with lupus have more problems sleeping than the general population. This can add to lupus fatigue and stress. Many studies show that aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to improve sleep.
- Quality of life. Because lupus is a chronic and unpredictable disease, it can produce stress and anxiety. Aerobic exercise has been found to reduce depression in people with lupus and improve their overall sense of well-being.
What Kinds of Exercise Work Best?
“Exercise regimens that focus on muscle strengthening and improving endurance are best. Some examples are swimming, walking, low impact aerobics, and bicycling,” advises Dr. Bishnoi.
- Muscle training. Muscle strengthening exercises include isometric exercises where you contract your muscles without movement and and isotonic exercises where you include movement, as in weight training.
- Be flexible. Flexibility exercises are important in maintaining the full range of motion of your joints. Exercises that stretch your muscles and increase flexibility include Pilates and yoga.
- Movement therapies. These exercises combine physical movement and techniques to calm the mind. They have been shown to increase flexibly and help relieve pain. Yoga can also be included here, as well as tai chi and qigong.
- Aerobic exercise. These are activities that increase your heart rate and help build endurance. For aerobic exercise to benefit your heart, you want to get up to about 30 to 50 minutes of exercise at least three times per week.
Avoiding Exercise Risks
Each person with lupus will have different levels of exercise ability. “It may also be appropriate if you are unsure what type of exercise is best for you to consider a consultation with a physical therapist,” says Bishnoi.
Another option is to take part in an organized exercise program. This can be a good way to socialize, become active in your treatment, and get support and encouragement. People who exercise in groups often see better results and stay with their exercise program longer.
The level of exercise that’s safe for you may change if your lupus symptoms become more active. If you have a flare of your lupus symptoms, you may need to reduce or stop your exercise activity to prevent damage to inflamed joints and muscles and to avoid fatigue. Although exercise can help prevent fatigue, too much exercise can trigger a lupus flare-up. You’ll need to find the right balance and avoid pushing yourself too hard. Always check with your doctor to see what level of exercise is best for you.