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When you’re living with lupus, the very thought of exercising can be painful. You’re tired, your joints ache, and you just want to rest. But research shows that exercise can help people with lupus build stronger muscles, prevent joint stiffness, control fatigue, and avoid weight gain. Just be sure to consult with your doctor first because some movements can be harmful when you have swollen joints or muscle pain.

Here are four ways exercise can boost your health when you have lupus, followed by five tips to help you get started.

1. Exercise Can Make You Stronger and More Flexible

David Wofsy, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco recommends low-impact exercise. It can improve muscle strength, ease muscle stiffness, and increase your range of motion.

The American College of Rheumatology suggests people with lupus perform four types of exercise: flexibility, strengthening, aerobic, and body awareness.

  • Flexibility exercises include stretching and range-of-motion movements. They can reduce stiffness and help make you more limber.
  • Strengthening exercises – like resistance training or weight-lifting -- work muscles more vigorously and contribute to better joint support.  
  • Aerobic exercise -- “cardio” -- includes activities such as dancing, water exercises, bicycling, or walking. These exercises use the body’s large muscles. Aerobic exercise improves heart and lung function.

Body awareness exercises, such as tai chi, yoga and Pilates, can improve posture, balance, and coordination, all important to people who are managing lupus.

2. Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

Studies suggest that up to 60% of people with chronic illness also experience clinical depression. Fortunately, exercise can help improve symptoms of depression. A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that just 20 minutes of physical activity a week can boost mental health. Participants who did simple physical activities demonstrated lower levels of depression after exercising. Even everyday activities such as gardening, walking pets, and doing household chores are associated with lower levels of distress.

3. Exercise Can Reduce Fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of lupus. Up to 80% of patients say they feel sluggish, tired, and run-down. Adding exercise to your schedule might seem counterintuitive. But exercise can increase your energy level. In an analysis of more than 70 studies on exercise, 90% of the studies showed that exercise improved fatigue.

4. Exercise Can Help Prevent Side Effects of Medications

Some commonly prescribed lupus medications, especially steroids like prednisone, can cause you to gain weight. They can increase your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, too. Steroids can lead to an increase in appetite. People who take these medications can help manage these side effects by working exercise into their daily routines.

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