• Vennessa McConkey

How Can I Exercise with an Autoimmune Disease (or more!)?

Autoimmune disease and exercise is a balancing act!

Although autoimmune disease symptoms can vary depending on the tissue the immune system is attacking, most people with autoimmunity struggle with bouts of fatigue, energy “crashes,” brain fog, inflammation, and pain. These symptoms can throw a frustrating wrench in your exercise habit.

So, if these reoccurring symptoms have prevented you from starting an exercise routine, take heart. Regular exercise can be one of the MOST effective ways to manage your autoimmune condition — you just need to heed your body’s fluctuating needs and tolerance levels.

As you may have guessed, we are talking about autoimmune disease and exercise!!! And those of your with autoimmune diseases are like, whoa Vennessa, no way can I add in exercise. I’m too tired and in too much pain….but I challenge you to keep listening in! For those who don’t know me yet, I’m Vennessa McConkey, wife and mom first,...second, a certified functional medicine nutritionist, ACE certified rehabilitation specialist, leggings fanatic and lover of all things that challenge me especially through data and research. I’m here to educate and empower you to take control of those in-between moments that the doctors can’t (and shouldn’t) help you with, such as pain, fatigue and brain fog, so you can live a vibrant life WITH your invisible chronic illness.

So quick review, autoimmune disease is a condition in which an immune imbalance causes the immune system to attack and destroy tissue in the body. It is a chronic inflammatory condition that many people successfully manage through functional medicine protocols that include dietary and lifestyle strategies as well as helpful nutraceuticals.

Regular exercise is paramount in managing an autoimmune condition for the following reasons:

  • Done correctly, it produces anti-inflammatory compounds, such as endorphins

  • It improves circulation, which helps oxygenate body tissue, deliver nutrients to tissues, remove debris, and facilitate detoxification.

  • It produces chemicals that enhance brain function, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor; a healthy brain facilitates a healthy body.

How exercise may be different for someone managing an autoimmune disease

Although autoimmune disease can feel like a burden, especially when you’re having a flare, many people report it has also forced them to live more balanced, healthy lives. With autoimmune disease you typically don’t have the privilege of abusing your body to be more productive, to sleep less, to give too much, to say yes too often, and so on.

This also means you don’t always have the option of pushing yourself as hard as you’d like when you exercise. This can be hard on the ego, especially when it comes to exercising in a group situation. For instance, if you are involved in a team sport, group exercise class, or other situation that invites a competitive drive, your ego may want to do more than your body can deliver.

It’s important to pay attention to your body because while exercise has profound anti-inflammatory potential, over exercising will make inflammation worse and could trigger an autoimmune flare.

Likewise, if you’re new to exercise and afraid of triggering a flare, you may feel too intimidated by a group exercise class and looking “weak” or “lazy.”

Rest assured that’s just your ego talking and it’s best not to take orders from it if you want to prevent an autoimmune flare or excessive inflammation. Also, other people are too absorbed in their own workouts to notice yours.

Challenge yourself enough to release anti-inflammatory compounds but not so much you can’t comfortably return the next day

Many people with autoimmune disease find optimal results managing their autoimmunity by maintaining a consistent exercise schedule most days of the week.

Pulling this off means tuning in to your body to find the exercise sweet spot for autoimmune management — not too little and not too much.

Science shows using high-intensity interval training provides the most benefits for managing inflammation, boosting circulation and oxygenation, and improving brain function.

If you’re new to exercise, even just a few minutes a day can start to deliver HIIT’s benefits. If you’d like to improve your fitness level, incorporate HIIT into a longer workout that also includes weight training and some endurance training. I also have some GREAT workout programs perfect for those of you ready to commit to leveling-up your body WITH your autoimmune condition >>figure out what's best for you<<

It can be confusing knowing how to safely exercise to maximize its anti-inflammatory effects without going too far. I recommend no more than 45 min of strength training and/or cardio/HIIT lower impact.

The beauty of HIIT (using both cardio and weights) is that you can adjust it to your fitness level. One person’s HIIT may be sprinting up some stadium stairs while another person’s HIIT may be doing some push-ups from the knees. Both people benefit.


Keep these tips in mind when exercising with autoimmunity:

  • Find an exercise that is fun and enjoyable. Positivity is anti-inflammatory while dread and negativity are pro-inflammatory. Making it fun will be part of the health benefits. Get involved with a group (like ours)

  • Challenge yourself enough to get your heart rate up.

  • Don’t challenge yourself so much you trigger a flare. The key is to be able to do it again the next day. A consistent exercise schedule will deliver the most health benefits. Again, I have some great routines you can use to get started and not feel defeated!

  • Pay attention to your body. If you are feeling so run down you can hardly get out of bed, that is probably not a good day to go work out. If you are feeling a little run down but can function, dial back the intensity of your exercise but see if you can still perform. Sometimes a light workout helps you recover faster than not working out.

  • If you are feeling really run down while working out, it may be better to quit early than to push through.

  • Capitalize on the days you feel good to challenge yourself a little more than normal, being cautious not to overdo it.

  • Remember, this is a lifelong condition that requires lifelong attention. Make each day of exercise about the long-range journey as much as that day’s session.

Reminder: With more than 80 different autoimmune diseases out there, it’s no surprise that autoimmunity affects 1 in 5 Americans. Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and psoriasis are just a few that you may have heard of. Those of us with these conditions and others, feels like you’re constantly battling a cold, but instead it’s your body battling itself! During flares, these inflamed body parts cannot function the way they’re supposed to.

With autoimmune disease that affects the joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, finding the energy to exercise through the pain and fatigue can feel like a really daunting task.

But, you might be surprised to learn that exercise may actually help your autoimmune disease, plus it is important for heart health, weight management and blood sugar control.

So I want to briefly touch on a few autoimmune conditions where the pain may seem like it’s too great to workout: For those living with rheumatoid arthritis, physical activity has been shown to help improve both heart health and joint mobility, while also improving the disease course.

For those living with lupus, physical activity has been shown to improve heart health, psychological health and quality of life. Additionally, a systematic review and meta-analysis that looked at the effects of exercise in those with lupus showed that exercise is beneficial to help curb fatigue.

Fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disease that causes painful flares, has also been studied and aerobic exercise was shown to improve pain, physical health, mental health and quality of life. It helps that aerobic exercise, such as running, walking or cycling can be easily adjusted to fit your tolerance.

It is no question that exercise can help with the symptoms of various autoimmune diseases, while improving overall health and quality of life. However, exercise is just one piece of the puzzle and should not replace a well-balanced diet, medications and any other treatment plans your health care team has