Persons with chronic diseases—such as pain in the back or joints, heart disease, asthma, cancer, dementia or diabetes—can gain important health benefits from an exercise program. As always, it is important to consult with your doctor before starting to exercise; ask for advice on what exercises you should be doing and what precautions to take while exercising. The point of exercising when you have a chronic disease is to help you manage your symptoms and improve your overall health. Exercise is medicine!
Types of exercise and their benefits
- Flexibility exercises increase the range of motion of your joints.
- Balance and stability exercises help reduce the risk of falls and broken bones.
- Strength exercises, in addition to obviously improving your strength, aid endurance, making daily activities easier to do. They slow the progression of certain muscular diseases and also stabilize your joints.
- Aerobic exercises improve heart health and endurance. They also aid in weight loss. Aerobic activities can be done at low- and high-intensity; high-intensity exercise takes less time to achieve exercise goals. You can also alternate low- and high-intensity aerobic exercise; this is called interval training.
Disease-specific benefits of exercise
- Pain in the back - Low-impact aerobic exercise and core exercises for the abdominal as well as back muscles strengthens muscles around the spine that affect your posture. They increase the endurance of your muscles and improve their function.
- Arthritis pain in the joints - Specific exercises increase muscle strength around joints, which reduces joint stiffness and pain. Exercise increases the quality of life for persons with arthritis by improving their physical functioning.
- Heart disease - Exercise benefits include slowing disease progression and remodeling heart muscle damage. Interval training is generally well tolerated by persons with heart disease. Exercise helps people with high blood pressure lower their risk of dying of heart disease, and decreases the risk of heart disease progression.
- Asthma - Regular exercise controls the frequency and severity of asthma attacks for many individuals.
- Cancer - Regular exercise lowers your risk of death from breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. Those recovering from cancer report improved fitness and higher quality of life when they exercise.
- Dementia - People with higher activity levels have less risk of developing dementia or age-related cognitive impairment. For people who have dementia, exercise has been shown to improve cognition.
- Diabetes - Exercise works well to increase the effectiveness of insulin in lowering blood sugar levels in persons with Type 1 diabetes. It also increases your energy and helps you lose weight. For persons with Type 2 diabetes, exercise decreases the risk of dying from heart disease.
Safety PrecautionsWhile your doctor will discuss this with you as you plan your exercise program, here are a few safety tips to keep in mind. Your doctor may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist to help you design a safe exercise plan.
- What do athletic shoes have to do with back pain? - Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking or swimming are best, because they do not jolt or strain your back as running does. An enormous amount of excellent advice on choosing good athletic shoes is available. It includes different specifications for shoes depending on your intended activity.
- Arthritis pain in the joints - There are many types of arthritis. Your doctor or physical therapist can explain the best types of exercise given your condition so that you have the least chance of aggravating your joints. For some people with arthritis, taking a warm shower before exercising (or washing dishes if you are going to exercise your hands) can relax your muscles and joints and relieve pain.
- Heart disease - Be aware of signs that you should stop exercising. These include unusual shortness of breath, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, or dizziness.
- Asthma- If you have exercise-induced asthma, don’t forgo the benefits of exercising. Build up your exercise routine gradually and be sure to have an inhaler handy when you exercise.
- Diabetes - Remember that any physical activity will lower your blood sugar level. Check your sugar level before exercising; you may need a small snack before exercising in order to prevent hypoglycemia.
Finding time to exerciseYour exercise goal is 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity at least 5 days a week. Especially when just beginning an exercise program, it can be difficult to fit it into your daily schedule. Most likely this is a motivational challenge, so put exercise sessions on your calendar! Activities that appear as part of your formal daily plan are more likely to get done. You can also put “exercise” on your daily TO DO list; it feels good to cross that one off.
Getting startedYour doctor will help you create a plan with a starting point and a goal for exercise. Especially if you have not been active in a while, it is important to start an exercise program slowly and build up the length and intensity gradually. Remember, any activity is healthier than none at all. Sit less and move more; even an hour total a week is beneficial.
The best news is that you don’t need to set aside a full hour for a complete workout. Research has shown that exercising in short bursts works as well. Start with small sessions a few times a day, and soon you will be meeting your exercise goal and improving your overall health and wellbeing.
Staying motivatedYour doctor may recommend exercise programs for persons with your condition that are run by a local hospital or health club. Some insurance plans support these organized exercise programs.
Exercising with a friend can help you stick to your routine. So can choosing activities that are fun for you, and adding in additional enjoyable physical activities such as an occasional hike. It is OK to take an “exercise vacation” for a day, but try to get back on track the next day.
The most important exercise advice is to set realistic goals given your current health condition. Be sure to celebrate your successes as you reach health improvement milestones.