Cardio and Autoimmune Diseases – Is It Smart?
It’s a question that many autoimmuners are asking these days, and the answers they get are wide and varied. In this article I will give you some information about:
- What cardio training really is
- The benefits of it
- The contraindications of cardio while having an autoimmune disease
- Some examples that you can do today
Skip to the bottom if you just want to see some examples! Read on if you want to know the “why”…
What is Cardio Training?
Most of think of cardio training as running. While running is an exercise that falls in this category, it is really the effect of running that we are concerned with.
“Cardio” is actually short for “cardiorespiratory” (a combination “cardiovascular” and “respiratory”). It is our elaborate system of our heart, blood, and blood vessels, and lungs. When training this system, we are trying to stress our bodies ability to supply the vital blood and air that we need to survive so that our body adapts and is later able to withstand additional stress to handle every day life.
These systems are important because the blood serves three functions:
- It is the transporter of all of our vital nutrients, oxygen, and hormones to all tissues in our body and then removes the waste products,
- It regulates our body’s heat, pH levels, and water content, and
- It protects our body from injury by clotting and sealing off wounds and sends our immune cells to fight foreign invaders.
As someone with an autoimmune disease, you are probably already drawing attention to the facts that it removes waste products and sends our immune cells to fight foreign invaders.
The Benefits of Cardio Training
So the benefits are actually quite interesting to people with autoimmune diseases. First, blood can remove waste products, which is incredibly important for us. With a better trained cardio system, we can remove toxins more quickly and get ourselves feeling better!
YES, CARDIO IS IN.
Hold on! It also sends our immune cells to fight foreign invaders. So it seems that with a well-trained cardio system comes a well trained army. That would be good, if our armies weren’t a bunch of Benedict Arnolds. Since our immune systems have gone awry, we can theoretically increase the time of response of our immune reactions to toxins.
Settle down. OK so let’s think about this. If we have a well trained cardio system we can remove toxins more quickly. This is QUITE an excellent thing to have on our side. Speaking from the standpoint of inflammation, this is likely where the best benefit is; removing toxins will stop the body from sending histamines there to inflame whatever area of your body is being attacked. Whether this is the exact mechanism that cardio uses reduces inflammation, there is no doubt that cardio training reduces inflammation. More on this later. The problem comes in when we are continuing to PUT the toxic things into our bodies. So the ideal situation is to implement cardio training and reduce the toxic load on our bodies in the first place. No more of this “I work out so I can stuff my face” crap. No cop outs!
Apart from the very specific function blood performs in our body, cardio training is good for so many other things. It releases healthy endorphins that improve our moods and reduce pain. This is a nice little benefit for those that have painful types of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and so on. Cardio also:
- Increases metabolism (shed those extra pounds you’ve put on from autoimmunity!)
- Reduces your recovery time from injuries and wounds (related to it’s protection role), which is important for those with leaky guts and skin conditions like psoriasis or various rash symptoms.
- Helps regulate your body temperature, or more importantly raises your body temperature during exercise (nice for those hyptothyroiders who can’t stay warm)
So why in the heck are doctors or others suggesting we don’t do cardio with an autoimmune disease?
Contraindications of Cardio and Autoimmune Diseases
Right so with all the good benefits we see before, why wouldn’t someone want you to do cardio?
Well the problem is probably two-fold:
- Most doctors aren’t personal trainers and really don’t know much about the various modalities of exercise, so they think of cardio training as long runs on the pavement or on treadmills, constantly pounding away at our knees and legs
- Most people think the same way as the doctors in number one, and see cardio as this needs-to-last-hours type exercise. Please dispel this from your mind now. I’ll wait.
So let’s talk about what the real issue is. With certain types of cardio, such as long runs or aerobics classes or spinning classes (there are more but I like lists of three), there is a possibility of training too hard and doing exactly what the doctors and others worry you would do. When we train cardio too long, our body starts to go into a state called catabolism. In fact, your body can go into this state during weight training as well, but weight training deters it since it is it’s antithesis, anabolic training.
Catabolism is the state in which the body has begun to break itself down. This happens because of many reasons, but it is a combination of training too long, lack of vital nutrients and water, lack of rest, increase in cortisol, decrease in testosterone, and some others. The breaking down occurs in all of our tissues, it causes fatigue, and it messes up our immune system (even more). It is bad.
One thing in that list is especially important, and that is the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and stress is a huge part of autoimmunity. We usually have too much cortisol since our body is constantly being taxed by our immune system, and we want to do everything we can to reduce it. Well cortisol can also be released when we try to do something like run on knees that are already inflamed. Cortisol increases in general when we work a damaged physical aspect of our body. We don’t want that!
What we do want to do is minimize catabolism and cortisol, maximize anabolism, and improve our bodies ability to regulate these systems. Cardio training, that is the RIGHT cardio training, can help you do that.
So here are the real contraindications for cardio and autoimmune diseases:
- Training too long (this varies per person and you need to listen to your own body; I would suggest for autoimmuners that you probably shouldn’t go past 15-30 minutes of cardio training a day)
- Training in a modality that elicits additional cortisol for your autoimmune condition (such as running on hard pavement when you have rheumatoid arthritis or lupus flare ups in your knees)
- Training in a state of nutritional deficiencies, dehydration, or extreme fatigue or lack of sleep
“Ugh, Brian, this is too hard.” Hey now, wait until the next section to get all huffy on me…
So What Cardio Exercises Are Good For People With Autoimmune Diseases?
These will vary person to person, autoimmune disease to autoimmune disease, so I will give examples and then you can glean what may be good for you.
- Brisk Walking – Ah, the classic walk. Still so good. Walking is pretty low impact so should not bother too many people with autoimmune diseases. I take walks quite regularly when I’m not feeling well, because you just need to get moving to get your heart rate up and get it training. Try a 30 minute brisk walk around your neighborhood or the local park and you will get your heart rate up while probably seeing some interesting things and getting some fresh air (if your air is fresh…). I listen to podcasts or music during mine.
- May not be good for those with current joint inflammation or those with sensitive skin or other types of autoimmune symptoms that are exacerbated by being outdoors.
- Elliptical Training – this low-impact exercise machine reduces the amount of stress impact on your knees as you’re doing a running type exercise. That lowered impact helps prevent your body from producing extra cortisol. Try 15-20 minutes of elliptical training.
- Similarly, not good for those with current joint inflammations if it’s difficult to get any range of motion, or potentially those with sensitive skin and prone to sweating (you can alleviate this second one by training in cold temperatures; this applies to many of these other exercises as well)
- Spinning – see elliptical training and walking; but this is even more low impact. Try doing this for 20-40 minutes.
- This may be extra difficult for those with reduced range of motion in their legs
- Swimming – this could be your golden ticket. Swimming is an EXCELLENT cardiorespiratory exercise. And it is virtually impact free. This is is great for people who have inflamed joints or limited range of motion. You can literally just tread water in whatever range of motion you can muster, or if possible you can do laps either with your arms or using your legs and a kickboard. The additional benefit of swimming is that assuming it’s cold water, it is EXCELLENT for reducing inflammation. So if you HAVE inflamed joints, just jump in the coldest pool you can find and you will find sweet, sweet relief. Extra bonus benefit is that cold water has positive hormonal benefits as well. So basically this is a super exercise, go do it right now. Swim for 30-60 minutes. And you can just sit in the water for as long as you want or can handle to get the cold water benefits.
- Risky for those who may be sensitive to chlorine or other chemicals hitting their skin. In this case, jump in a cold lake, river, or ocean. Preferably a nice clean fresh spring.
- Stairmaster – This beast of a machine is one of my favorites. It’s pretty low impact, a little more anabolic than the others because it takes a lot of glute power to keep you moving. Try it for 10-20 minutes; you probably won’t be able to go much longer anyway.
- Still a toughy for those with low ROM.
- Rowing machine – enough of those lower body focused cardio machines; let’s look at rowing. You can do rowing with your full body, but if you have bad lower body range of motion, just row with your upper body. Set the machine to row for a certain distance or time, and I think you’ll find 8-15 minutes sufficient to make your heart get pumping.
- Tough for those with upper body mobility issues
So those are my out-of-the-box ideas for cardio and autoimmune diseases. I can discuss more if you are interested but that should be enough to get you thinking!