Exercises for Lupus

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 16, 2011
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

People with lupus should plan their exercise program carefully, with medical advice. Exercise is good for you, but unsupervised exercise or too much exercise, too fast, can harm your health. Follow these five tips to exercise safely.

  • Talk to Your Doctor. Each lupus patient tolerates physical activity differently. Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise plan. She can work with you in determining the best type of exercise, the right intensity, and realistic goals based on your condition.
  • Take it Slow and Steady. Don’t start with an extreme exercise routine, only to burn out quickly. Because exercise can help you manage lupus symptoms, start slowly and increase your level of intensity when it feels right. You’ll feel more benefits by exercising regularly at a lower intensity than you will if you exercise only occasionally at a high level of intensity. Keep a steady pace and remember to rest between sessions. If you burn out or give up on exercise entirely, you might feel even more joint and muscle weakness.
  • Make a Low Impact. Take part in intense physical activities such as jogging, weight lifting, or high-impact aerobics only with your doctor’s permission. In general, people with lupus get the most and longest-lasting benefits from low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking, yoga, or stretching.
  • Keep an Exercise Journal. Exercise journals have multiple benefits. Use a journal to set goals and track your progress. Seeing your abilities increase over time can be really encouraging. Keeping a journal can also help you decide what kinds of exercise work best for you. Note how you feel, physically and emotionally, after you work out. Write in your journal even on days when you don’t want to exercise or don’t feel well. The journal can help you and your doctor see patterns in your symptoms and physical abilities.
  • Buddy Up. Exercising with someone else can add a lot of fun to an activity you might otherwise find boring or difficult. Make sure to exercise with someone who understands your limitations and goals, and who will encourage you on your tough days. Exercise partners can also inspire you to exercise when you don’t feel like it. Another way to stay motivated is to join a class such as aquatics, tai chi, or yoga. Attending a class offers a community environment where you can make new friends and make progress with the support of other participants.