Your Ultimate Guide to Exercising With Lupus

Low-impact cardio activities are a great way to protect your joints while building fitness.
Image Credit: AnanR2107/iStock/GettyImages

Systemic lupus erythematosus, also known as lupus, is an autoimmune disease where the immune system targets its own tissues and launches attacks. These flares can come with a range of symptoms, including sleep disturbances, frequent fevers and skin rashes.

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Some autoimmune conditions affect just one type of tissue, but lupus creates challenges throughout your body, affecting your nerves, blood cells, joints and lungs, according to Cynthia Aranow, MD, rheumatologist and professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

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There's no single cause for developing lupus, she adds, although genetics and age can play a role. Symptoms can be managed with medication, but there's no cure yet. However, lifestyle changes can go a long way toward preventing flares — and exercise is a big part of that, Aranow says.

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Here's a look at why exercise can help manage lupus symptoms, along with some activities worth considering and top tips for exercising safely.

Benefits of Exercise for Those Living With Lupus

Although lupus can prompt some symptoms that may seem to encourage getting more rest — joint pain, reduced mobility, muscle weakness and fatigue — those issues are actually better improved through exercise than taking it easy, according to Daniel Kim, DO, a family physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan.

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"In general, regular exercise can enhance physical fitness and strength, which may reduce lupus-related challenges, like tiredness or less joint flexibility," he says. "Not only can that reduce discomfort, but exercise can also boost mood, which is important with this condition."

A few more key benefits include:

1. Improved Heart Health

Exercise helps prevent heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for those with lupus because the condition raises the level of inflammation in your body, negatively affecting your heart, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.

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Exercise can help reduce lupus-related inflammation and strengthen your cardiovascular system, improving your overall heart health.

2. Less Fatigue

Exercise can help improve your body's respiratory function, which can also help reduce the type of fatigue that's common with lupus. After 12 weeks of consistent training, people with lupus experienced improved oxygen usage, resulting in less fatigue, according to an October 2022 study in ‌Lupus Science & Medicine‌.

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3. Better Sleep

Sleep disturbance is a common issue for people with lupus, and combined with poor sleep quality, this can increase incidents of flares, according to the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.

After three months of a structured walking program, subjects of a June 2023 study in the International Journal of Nursing Practice reported improved sleep quality and overall higher quality of life.

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More good news: It doesn't take much to get benefits like these, Dr. Kim says. Starting with light activity a few times a week — or short bursts of exercise every day, like taking a walk after dinner — can help you build up gradually toward more activity. The more movement you do, the more controlled your lupus symptoms might become.

Best Types of Exercise When You Have Lupus

Not every workout type will be appropriate when you have lupus, Dr. Kim says. Although there are no specific workout restrictions to follow, some types of exercise tend to be better than others when it comes to alleviating symptoms.

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Here are a few activities worth considering:

1. Low-Impact Cardio

Low-impact exercise like swimming, cycling or walking is a great option for people with lupus. Many people with lupus have joint pain, making high-impact activity difficult.

"By opting for low-impact exercise that's easy on the joints, you reduce joint tension while increasing aerobic fitness, muscular strength and range of motion," Dr. Kim says.

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2. Mobility and Flexibility Training

Mobility training and flexibility exercise like yoga and dynamic stretching can help loosen tight muscles as well as improve balance, stability and joint health, according to Rocky Snyder, CSCS, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with a broad range of clients.

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These activities also provide different movement patterns, he says. Because lupus can affect cognitive function, like your memory and concentration, firing up your brain through a mind-body routine (like yoga) can be helpful, Snyder says.

3. Strength Training

Muscle-building exercise, like wight training, can help improve your strength and mobility overall, but also offers better joint support by building the muscles surrounding your joints, Snyder says.

For those with lupus, a good starting point is to keep work volume low but frequent. For example, you may do a 10-minute strength-training session every other day, rather than an intense 30-minute routine a few times per week.

Also, shorter, more frequent workouts can keep muscle soreness more controlled, Snyder adds. Because lupus can affect muscles so much, minimizing soreness while still building strength is an essential part of this type of training.

Tips for Exercising With Lupus

Checking with your doctor before launching into an exercise program is the top tip, Dr. Kim says. And don't forget to exercise caution (pun intended) when training outside.

1. Check With Your Doctor

Before you try any kind of new exercise program, you want to make sure it's appropriate for your body. Talk with your doctor before launching into a new exercise program, Dr. Kim recommends.

Once you get the green light, start slow and ease into your new regimen, giving yourself plenty of rest days.

2. Be Cautious When Training Outside

Some common symptoms of lupus can include sensitivity to sunlight, strong reactions to cold and heat, and Raynaud's phenomenon — in which your fingers and toes become white, blue or purple when your body gets too cold, Dr. Kim says.

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So, be extra careful to check the outdoor temperature before you take your workout to the park. Wear appropriate clothing and be sure to stay hydrated while you train.

3. Listen to Your Body

Keeping track of how exercise affects your body is another important strategy because the intensity of symptoms can change over time and also flare up without warning, Dr. Kim says.

You may experience different symptoms after exercise, such as skin rash, joint pain or even brain fog. So, Dr. Kim recommends keeping a log of symptoms and what you did right before they came up can help tailor an exercise regimen so it's more helpful.

Also be sure to take plenty of breaks and build in recovery days, according to Dr. Kim. This is so your muscles and joints have time to gain strength and flexibility rather than get overtaxed, which can raise inflammation levels.

It's also worth noting certain joints might be at a higher injury risk. If you experience edema (swelling due to too much fluid trapped in your body's tissues), erythema (reddening of your skin) or heat buildup, you should stop exercising.

4. Include Variety

Finally, mix together a breadth of exercises, Dr. Kim suggests, because this can help prevent overusing any one set of muscles or joints, which can help prevent injuries, too. Also, exploring a wide range of physical activity options can keep you motivated and boost your chances of finding activity you truly love.

"One of the best reasons for people with lupus to exercise is because it's crucial for stress reduction and improves quality of life," Dr. Kim says.

Living with a chronic condition often brings challenges, sometimes daily, so pivoting away from symptom relief as a main goal and toward a more joyful, engaged mindset through exercise can go a long way toward helping manage lupus in both the immediate future and for years to come.

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