Is a chronic health condition a barrier to exercise?

Many people with chronic health conditions are reluctant to exercise, and often understandably so. For some, exercise may have caused fatigue and, for others, pain. Some may worry about their blood pressure. However, it is increasingly the case that exercise is being shown to have benefits for most of those with chronic health conditions including lowered risk of future complications, keeping muscles and bones strong and gaining increased stamina, as well as psychological benefits. Weight loss can also be a goal in some cases. The key is developing an exercise routine which will bring some of these benefits without causing risk, additional pain or exhaustion. 


Exercise safely

For those with a chronic health condition, it’s always wise to consult your GP/primary care provider about how an exercise programme may affect you. Your GP may have useful suggestions and you can discuss any concerns over possible risks. Sometimes referral to a physiotherapist may be appropriate and they can help you to draw up a plan. If you visit a specialist about your condition, you could also ask him or her for advice. Don’t be put off if you’ve already tried exercise recommended by your GP, physio or specialist and found it unsuitable: it may still be possible for you to do less or try something different (but do check it’s safe first). Be aware of signs you need to stop, such as feeling faint, sharp pain and unusual shortness of breath. 


Be prepared to do less

For many who have developed a chronic condition in their late teens or adulthood, an obstacle to exercise can be the awareness that it’s no longer possible to exercise in the same way you could in the past. Doing less can appear futile or dissatisfying. However, given the benefits that exercise can bring, accepting doing less can often be the best path. A five minute jog or a ten minute weight lifting session may at first appear pointless, but ‘little and often’ can be a great policy and you will probably find that even a very short exercise session can be enjoyable. In addition, it may be possible to increase it gradually, perhaps even to former levels. 


Pace yourself

‘Pacing’ is often a love-hate concept among those with chronic health conditions. Understandably, it can be difficult and tedious to divide up tasks, such as hoovering one room a day instead of doing it all on Saturday. On the other hand, some say that it’s helped them to significantly reduce pain and/or fatigue and to regain control of life. So, what does this signify for your exercise plan? Initially, it can be a bit like a scientific experiment as you gradually test how much exercise you can manage, starting with a very low amount. Make a note of how tired you were after, or any effects on pain or heart rate. Use a scale of 1-10 if that helps. On the basis of this, you can decide what is a good starting point. It’s best to be cautious, rather than attempt too much and get put off trying again.


Consider a personal trainer

For some people it can be really useful to get the advice of a personal trainer. They can make sure you’re exercising correctly in the gym or with free weights, which is particularly important if you have a condition affecting your muscles or joints. They can reassure you about safe heart rates and provide advice on how to exercise particular muscle groups, or develop a good full body fitness plan. Many people also find that a trainer really helps them to keep motivated.


Think creatively

If you can’t do more than wriggle your fingers for five minutes a day, it’s still exercise. You may need to exercise in usual ways – sitting down while lifting weights, for example – and this may require some creative thinking. It might also be necessary to exercise at a particular time of day, to best suit your condition, or to wear unconventional clothing, use mobility aids etc. If you prefer team activities, there might be wheelchair sports groups in your area, yoga classes for those with M.E., or other adapted activities. You could even contact local people with similar conditions to yours and create one.

We hope this article has motivated you to make exercise a part of your life; we're sure that, in time, it will feel well worth the effort.


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