Do you love to exercise, or want to love it? Maybe you wish you could exercise, but your autoimmune symptoms won’t let you…
Most people know that exercise is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle. The benefits of regular exercise are well-documented, including: increased muscle mass and metabolic rate (helps regulate weight); decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer; improved bone density; regulation of mood; reduction of stress; and improved immune function. May I have some more, please?
MORE ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER
While the general attitude toward exercise seems to be “more is better,” excessive exertion can be detrimental to the body — whether or not you have autoimmunity (AI). Over-doing it can result in an immediate increase in the hormone cortisol, which can increase risk for sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, memory impairment, exhaustion and weight gain. Overtraining can affect neurotransmitters such as glutamine and dopamine, leading to depression. The stress of excessive exercise can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA), which is closely tied to adrenal and thyroid function (read: adrenal fatigue). It can also lead to leaky gut, a critical issue for people with autoimmunity. And most importantly, over-doing exercise increases systemic inflammation – the Evil Superpower behind autoimmunity.
Why bring up these nefarious effects? They are bad news for anyone, but with the added physiological stresses of AI, they can lead to a symptomatic danger zone that disrupts our ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Another factor is that many people with AI tend to be Type A, or push themselves really hard; we need to keep this in mind when we choose our workouts, so we don’t throw ourselves off the symptomatic cliff. Even if you aren’t a Type A go-getter, with AI it’s wise to keep close tabs on how hard you push your body when you exercise. As it turns out, not all workout types are equal when it comes to energy expenditure and depletion, and not all bodies respond the same way to each kind of exercise.
HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING, CARDIO, and RESISTANCE TRAINING
Ten years ago, extended aerobic exercise and weight training were the gold standards for “working out.” In recent years we’ve added HIIT and CrossFit along with a growing list of creative training methods. We also have a healthy pool of research and debate as to the value of each method for reaching various goals (weight loss? muscle mass? endurance? strength? cardiovascular health?). Ideally, we’d be able to handle some of each type every week – long runs, hearty HIIT workouts, and some weight training to round it out – in order to gain all the benefits. But many people with AI can tell you that covering all those bases isn’t frequently an option. If ever.
Let’s take a look at three main exercise categories, then consider how they might fit into the lifestyle of someone living with autoimmunity.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a training technique in which you give all-out, one hundred percent effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short, low- to medium-intensity recovery periods. For example: Sprint for 30 seconds, jog for 90, repeat cycle for 20 minutes. HIIT workouts are generally more intense and much shorter than aerobic workouts because a body – AI or not – just can’t handle that level of intensity for very long.
HIIT forces your heart and body to learn how to adapt to constantly changing conditions. It also kicks the metabolism into high gear, which continues for hours after the workout in a sort of “after-burn” called EPOC, or Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption. EPOC snapshot: You work at a level beyond what your body is capable of handling (i.e. it can’t keep up), and it uses the next 12, 24, or even 36 hours to ‘catch up’ metabolically. Net effect: Extended calorie burn. Other than caloric output, HIIT also helps modulate insulin resistance, reduce abdominal fat, reduce oxidative stress and improve antioxidant status.
For the amount of time spent “working out”, HIIT burns far more calories than cardio because of the EPOC after-burn; studies have shown a dramatic difference between the fat loss of subjects who did HIIT and those who did cardio.
The Catch: Some AI folks report they actually prefer cardio to HIIT, because the sheer intensity of HIIT can be too much for their bodies despite the short length of the workout.
Cardio (aerobic exercise) is any exercise with relatively low intensity, that you can do for a prolonged period of time. Swimming, cycling, walking, elliptical and rowing are examples of low-impact cardio. Running, jumping rope, and step aerobics are high impact cardio. Cardio isn’t always an intense, heart pounding experience – some bodies can get an aerobic workout during a brisk walk.
Compared to HIIT, cardio doesn’t much encourage EPOC (mentioned above); when the workout is done, things come to a rest and the calorie burn fades.
Cardio stimulates and strengthens the heart and lungs, improving the body’s utilization of oxygen; decreases risk of heart disease; lowers blood pressure; increases “good” cholesterol; helps to control blood sugar; builds strength and tone, and assists in weight management. It also tends to be lower impact on the joints than HIIT, which for some bodies, is necessary.
The Catch: Some AI folks report that cardio’s more extended nature is too exhausting and wears them out more than shorter-length HIIT or Resistance Training.
Resistance (Weight) Training is exercise that uses weights for resistance, such as circuit training, weight lifting, and body weight exercises. Benefits of resistance training include improved muscle strength and tone, healthy weight, increased bone density and strength, improved cardiovascular health, and improved cholesterol levels. As with HIIT, resistance training enables the body to go somewhat into the “after-burn” state of EPOC; studies show that subjects who add weight training to a cardio workout lose a higher percentage of body fat than those who only do cardio.
The Catch: Some AI folks report that Resistance Training’s intensity too exhausting and wears them out more than cardio.
STARTING OUT, CHANGING IT UP, AND LISTENING TO YOUR BODY
As you can see above, each of these categories has its potential benefits and drawbacks, and there may not be an obvious leader for the AI contingent. Interview ten active people with AI, and you’ll hear a variety of passionate opinions on what works best. Which type – or types – of exercise work for you will depend entirely on your unique physiological needs. With autoimmunity, we are more prone to limiting factors such as adrenal fatigue, micronutrient deficiencies, chronic high cortisol, anemia, sleep issues, genetic defects that affect detox, joint pain, inflammation, and more *gasp*. What a list! All of these factors make us more prone to depletion, and this demands a more thoughtful approach to exercise – what works for one person might not work for the next. And remember, there can be a fine line between the right amount of exercise, which benefits health, and too much, which can actually cause more problems.
This is where you get to exercise your finely-tuned skills of listening really well to your body. And then responding accordingly. Figuring out what is right for you may take some patient experimentation; it’s the ever-present “biohack” that we get so good at as we navigate the autoimmune world.
Not sure what to look out for? These are clear signs of overdoing it:
- hard time recovering from workouts
- can’t complete workouts
- decline in performance
- need for naps or serious rest after workouts
- loss of general motivation and enthusiasm
- irritability or aggression for minor reasons
- weakened immune function
- loss of menstrual cycle
- unexplained change in weight
- sleep disturbances
- increased leaky gut symptoms
On the bright side, if you do your workout and feel energized and balanced afterward, you’re likely on the right track. Keep it up, while keeping an eye out for signs of overdoing it down the line – as our bodies change, so can our exercise tolerance.
Need a change but not sure what to do? Some scenarios:
- If you’re just starting to exercise, use your best judgment and start out gently. Try out different exercise styles, and make sure to give your body plenty of time to recover between workouts – that way you’ll have the space to listen to the messages it sends you. Only increase your exertion once you feel totally ready to do so.
- CrossFit, P90X or HIIT trashing you? Stop it and try light cardio for a week; if you recover better, great, stay away from the intense stuff. Next, try adding some light weight training to the mix twice a week. Take your time and respect your body’s messages.
- Running habit draining you? Maybe your body would respond better to shorter, more intense HIIT workouts. Or, reduce your run by half, and add in some resistance training twice a week. Listen to your body and respond.
- Nothing’s working and you’re still trashed? Time to take a break from working out for a week or two. The world won’t end while you give your body a rest!
With autoimmunity, the topic of exercise has wide boundaries; there are many added physiological issues that make this terrain a bewildering place. In my next article, I’ll write about the topic of when exercise recovery becomes harder to handle, and offer tips on how to work with it.