There are three simple steps towards leading a healthy life: sleep, diet and exercise. But when it comes to living with a chronic condition, the last thing we want to do is punish our already aching bodies with a difficult workout.
The reason why so many people I know are opposed to working out is simple: more often than not, exercise is regarded as punishment for something we did wrong (ate that extra piece of cake, or failed to meet the ideal body image propagated by popular media). Sometimes, even I, a self-proclaimed fitness enthusiast, view it as that.
But the truth is, moving and being active are things that are inherent to humankind. They’re more than just a way to look good. They’re the key to being healthy, happy and living a long life.
So, even if you suffer from a chronic illness and feel like the generic gym workout simply isn’t cutting it for you, rest assured that there is such a thing as the right workout plan. You just have to have the patience to find what does it for you.
What kinds of chronic diseases can benefit from exercise?
For every chronic condition, there’s an exercise routine that can help ease discomfort, lower pain levels, improve outcomes, and so on.
In fact, exercising can even help prevent certain chronic conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.
However, if you already suffer from one of these conditions, here’s how regular exercise can help:
- High blood pressure and heart disease: Regular aerobic exercise improves heart health. Those suffering from a heart condition can even apply interval training, if cleared by their doctor.
- Diabetes: Exercise can help regulate insulin levels.
- Asthma: Exercise can help control asthma attacks.
- Dementia: Exercise can improve cognitive function in those suffering from dementia.
- Arthritis: Exercise can reduce joint stiffness and pain, and improve muscle strength and flexibility.
How does exercise affect our bodies and minds?
Working out regularly has numerous benefits, and listing them all would take up a lot of space, so let’s just focus on the most prominent and important ones:
- Regular exercise leads to improved sleep, thus impacting your overall quality of life. To get quality rest and truly help your muscles recover during the night, you’ll need to make sure you sleep on a comfortable mattress and a pillow with enough support.
- Keeps the brain healthy and has a positive effect on cognitive functions.
- Has a positive effect on mental health.
- Helps maintain the health and density of your bones.
- Helps improve and maintain heart and lung health.
- Improves the health and endurance of muscles and connective tissues.
- Helps promote a healthy immune system.
What kinds of exercises should you be doing?
As you probably know, there are three main forms of exercise. In order to get the most out of them, try to include all three kinds in your regime, so that you get a rounded fitness routine that targets all your body’s needs.
The first thing most people think of when it comes to aerobic exercise is running. But the thing is, you don’t have to put that kind of stress on your joints to ensure heart health, lung capacity, and lose weight.
The one thing I do every morning before breakfast is go for a 20-minute walk. If you have a dog, it’s the perfect recipe, as you get a two-for-one combo out of the practice. Or, if you’re not one for walking, hop on your bike.
Combine this morning routine with one or two swim sessions a week or a 90-minute hike on a sunny weekend.
I’m not big on strength training, yet I know that it’s crucial for several reasons. Strong muscles not only look good, but they also help stabilize your joints and can improve your metabolism.
Now to get a good strength workout, you don’t have to lift at the gym. Even a couple of yoga or pilates sessions per week can give you the amount of exercise you need, without creating too much stress.
If you do decide to hit the gym, make sure you get a plan created for you by an educated and experienced personal trainer. They’ll help you maintain proper form so that you don’t end up doing more damage than good.
Last but not least, the perfect exercise regime also includes mobility work. Simply put, this is when you work on stretching and your balance so that your joints, muscles, and connective tissues are all in the best possible shape.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that flexibility is something you shouldn’t push too hard. Take it easy, and remember to be patient with yourself. If you have lower back pain, for example, stretching your hamstrings every day will provide great relief, but pushing too hard can put you at risk of injury.
The best type of mobility workout is yoga, but those with arthritis may find it too taxing on the knees. If that’s the case for you, make alterations to your practice, or opt for a different type of activity, such as foam rolling.
How much should you exercise?
The CDC recommends that adults get around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. That’s five 30-minute sessions, which isn’t that much if you think about it. The important thing to remember is that this number doesn’t include your strength and mobility training requirements.
So, try to supplement your cardio regime with two or three strength-training sessions as well. The great thing about strength training is that it doesn’t have to last long. You can get everything you need in as little as seven minutes! As for mobility, work on it during your rest days. Aim for one or two 45-minute sessions per week for the best results.
One more thing to keep in mind: if your job requires you to sit at your desk all day, make sure you take a break every 20 to 50 minutes, and just do a bit of walking, perform a couple of squats, or stretch your neck.
Make sure you incorporate more than just one type of exercise in your routine, and switch things up often. Try doing exercises in a different order and try something new every once in a while, which will help you work on an entirely new group of muscles. This will help maximize the benefits of your workouts.
How to add exercise to your daily routine?
Starting an exercise regimen can be quite challenging, so here are a few of my favorite tips:
Don’t expect your body to instantly take to exercise. It will naturally resist your efforts and try to put up a fight. Start by doing things you are very comfortable with, and take things up a notch one tiny bit at a time. Exercising should be a form of therapy, not a chore. Find activities that you enjoy, and don’t be afraid of mixing things up every once in a while. Personally, I don’t enjoy repetitive workouts, so when I know it’s time for a jog or an indoor cycling session, I motivate myself with a fun podcast.
Improve your diet
The one thing I’ve learned so far about exercise is that it’s much easier to endure if my body is fueled by the right foods. Try to eat well and eat well consistently. It makes a huge difference! You can also try modifying your diet: try eating Paleo for a month to cut out processed foods and sugar from your meals. It’s particularly popular among chronic disease patients because it entirely eliminates inflammatory foods, letting the body heal and minimizing GI problems and joint pain.
Always talk to your doctor first
One thing to remember is that when suffering from a chronic (or any other medical) condition, you need to consult your doctor before you start exercising. Depending on the severity of your condition, certain exercises might be completely off-limits. Your doctor can also tell you what to expect: how much pain, what sorts of energy levels, and so on.
The best thing you can do for your body is to keep exercising. The more consistent you are, the better your results will be. Try not to have too many rest days grouped together, and create a reasonable plan that you will stick to. Even on the days you really don’t feel like doing anything, try to do at least half of your planned routine.
Keep yourself motivated
Motivation can be the most difficult aspect of working out, so find a motive that will keep you going. Exercise with a friend, come up with a reward system, and try to overcome the initial slumps and objections your body will be sending you. Once exercising becomes routine, you will no longer have to coerce yourself to work out – you will simply do it, without thinking too much about whether you feel like it or not.
Working out on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do for your quality of life. And don’t let the fact that you suffer from a chronic disease hold you back: you can still live a full life and reap all the benefits of exercise. You will just need to tailor your routines a bit.
Stay focused and motivated, and enjoy the benefits you will soon begin to feel.