Is exercise helpful in managing chronic illness?

Exercise is extremely helpful in managing chronic illness and preventing new chronic conditions from developing. Regular physical exercise strengthens the

Exercise is extremely helpful in managing chronic illness and preventing new chronic conditions from developing.

heart muscle, brings your good and bad cholesterol into a better ratio, improves blood flow, prevents heart disease and stroke, and reduces blood pressure and body fat. Reductions in body fat help prevent and control type 2, or noninsulin-dependent, diabetes. Physical activity coupled with good, sound nutrition prevents and, over time, eliminates obesity, which is a major risk factor in many diseases. Regular exercise increases muscle strength, flexibility, and posture, helping to prevent back pain. Weight-bearing exercise improves and prevents osteoporosis, which often comes with aging or as a result of medications like prednisone. Regular exercise lubricates the joints, reduces pain, improves mood, reduces stress and anxiety, and is a valuable tool in stress management.

What kind of exercise should I do?

There are three basic kinds of exercise: cardiovascular, stretching, and strength. All three have a place in chronic disease self-management. Before you begin any exercise program, always talk with your doctor(s).

Exercise like walking, swimming, and biking make the heart work a little harder than normal. These are cardiovascular exercises. You will notice that your body feels warmer, and you might perspire. Your heart rate increases. A good measure of the right level of cardiovascular exercise is the talk test. You should be able to carry on a conversation while you are exercising. If you are working so hard that you can't carry on a conversation, cut back a level. But do keep in mind that this kind of exercise is moderate exertion. A leisurely stroll through the mall does not count as cardiovascular exercise.

Stretching helps maintain flexibility. Stretching reduces stress and tension. Search for stretching classes at your local gym, YMCA, community center, or senior center. Stretching helps you complete your daily tasks with less effort because you are not working against rigid muscles and tendons. Yoga is a marvelous way to do your stretching. You don't have to sit in full lotus or do a backbend. Yoga can be adapted to your level of flexibility and gradually increase it. Iyengar yoga uses props like blocks, straps, and bolsters to adapt postures and allow you to get the maximum benefit from stretching regardless of your flexibility level.

Strength training includes weights and isometrics[1]. Strength training exercises increase lean muscle. When you have more lean muscle, you burn calories more efficiently. When you burn calories more efficiently you are less likely to become overweight or obese, both of which lead to complications of your disease or new chronic conditions. Some medications like prednisone can cause a decrease in bone density (osteopenia[2] or osteoporosis[3]). Weight-bearing exercise stresses the bones just a little bit and can prevent these conditions. Both stretching and strength training are helpful in prevention of falls that can result in injury and broken bones.

How can I get started with an exercise program?

When you are sick, tired, and in pain there is no desire to exercise. When depression takes over there is no desire to do anything, much less exercise. But exercise is one of the tools that can help you feel better. People fail to reach their exercise goals because they pick an exercise they don't enjoy, set unrealistic goals, don't define their goals clearly, or encounter obstacles and don't know how to overcome them. Before you attempt any exercise plan, be sure to talk with your doctor about what you intend to do.

Select physical activities that you enjoy. If you hate to be outdoors, then walking around your neighborhood is probably not the right choice for you. If you still want to walk, you can purchase videos and walk right in your living room! Make a list of all the exercises that you might do. Then go over the list and pick out the ones that you would enjoy. Remember, you want to include some cardiovascular exercise, some stretching, and some strength training. You don't have to do them all on the same day or at the same time. Think about what you need in order to do those exercises. Do you need walking shoes? Resistance bands? Light weights?

Next, set a realistic goal. If you have been a couch potato all your life, an initial goal of walking an hour a day is not realistic. If your goal is unrealistic and you fail, you are going to feel worse about yourself and probably give up altogether. Your goal is not carved in stone and can be adjusted over time. For someone who has not exercised in a long time, a 10-minute walk might be a reasonable goal. The important thing is to be realistic.

Goals must be clearly defined or you won't have any way of knowing if you achieved it or not. I am going to get more exercise is a vague goal. What are you going to do? How long are you going to do it? How often are you going to do it? When are you going to do it? Where are you going to do it? Here is a clear, realistic, measurable action plan:

• What are you going to do? Walk.

• How long are you going to do it? 10 minutes.

• How often are you going to do it? 3 days this week.

• When are you going to do it? After dinner.

• Where are you going to do it? On my block. If the weather is bad, I will walk in place in the living room.

It will be easy for you to know if you achieved your goal. If you find that you can't or don't achieve your goal, keep modifying it until you reach a level where you can be successful. Remember you can exceed your goal if you wish. If you walk for 10 minutes and feel like doing more, great! If not, you have reached your goal. It is far better to set a low goal and savor the success than to set a high goal and set yourself up for failure.

  • [1] Exercises that involve pitting muscle against muscle or against an inanimate object (like a wall or door frame).
  • [2] A slight or minor thinning of the bones.
  • [3] Significant thinning of the bones requiring medical treatment.
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