Here's How To Exercise When You Have Lyme Disease

Photo: Lumina

Before contracting Lyme disease, I was an athletic person and always participated in competitive sports. But after getting infected with Lyme, my fatigue was so debilitating that doing any type of physical activity seemed impossible. I struggled just to get through my workday, and by the end of the day, I was completely exhausted. Even the slightest bit of activity would wear me out, and it seemed to take a long time to recover.

However, as I continued to improve, I was able to do more. My stamina slowly increased, and the little things didn't seem as difficult. I started studying karate and I earned my black belt six years after my initial tick bite. I never thought that would have been possible when I first got sick. Being persistent in moving my body, even when it seemed like it wasn’t making much of a difference, ended up playing a key role in my recovery.

When you don't feel well, your body hurts, and you have no motivation to do anything, exercise is probably the last thing on your mind. But when you move your body, you increase blood flow and bring more oxygen and nutrients to the parts of your body that need repair. Exercise can help boost your immune system to help naturally fight infection. Additionally, there are numerous mental health benefits to exercise, including improved mood and sleep.

1. Stretching

Start with gentle exercise, and do what your body will tolerate. There is no benefit to exercising to the point of exhaustion or to where you can't function for the next several days. The gentlest type of exercise is stretching, and even people who have limited mobility can usually do some type of stretching. By stretching your muscles, it helps move lymph, which is a fluid that surrounds all of your tissues and helps drain various toxins. Try to stretch as much of your body as possible. I like stretching because you can do it in the convenience of your own home and at a time that works for you. You’ll find that your flexibility and mobility improve quickly when you stretch regularly.

2. Walking

If you have a bit more stamina, then walking is a great way to get your body moving. Walk at a pace that is comfortable for you. I recommend walking on level surfaces when you start and try to avoid climbing hills or steep streets. If you live in a hilly neighborhood or a climate where being outside isn’t possible, try going to a local mall to get your steps in. If you have problems with balance, use a cane or walk with a friend for support. You can increase the distance and time spent walking as your stamina increases and you feel well enough to do so.

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3. Yoga

Yoga is another wonderful form of gentle exercise. It has been practiced for more than 2,000 years by millions of people worldwide. It involves doing a series of physical postures that can be easily modified for any fitness level. There are several styles of yoga, some being more difficult than others. I recommend starting with a beginner-level style of yoga, such as hatha, Iyengar, or restorative yoga. Some yoga styles use props to take some of the physical stress off your body, making it easier to hold poses longer. More advanced styles of yoga, such as Bikram or "hot yoga" should probably be avoided since they are a more fast-paced, strenuous type of yoga that most people with Lyme disease do not tolerate well.

4. Tai chi

If you prefer a slightly more dynamic but gentle type of exercise, you might enjoy tai chi. Originally developed as a Chinese martial art, it has evolved into an easygoing series of gentle standing movements and coordinating breathwork. Each movement flows into the next in a slow, rhythmic manner. It has often been referred to as "meditation in motion," and tai chi is a low-impact form of exercise with little stress on the joints and muscles. Tai chi classes are often offered through local community centers or schools.

5. Swimming

For those who have poor balance or find walking or standing difficult, swimming can be a good way to get your body going—assuming you have access to a pool. Swimming builds muscle strength and endurance, and you can even use a flotation devise like a kickboard to keep your head above water if that makes it easier for you. Freestyle, backstroke, and sidestroke can all be done at a slow pace, so this can be as easy or difficult as you choose. I personally find that being in saltwater is very healing, so if you have access to a saltwater pool, it may be preferable to a chlorinated pool.

Start any exercise program slowly and increase the intensity or duration as you feel your body can handle it. Be mindful of how you feel after exercising, and if it feels like it was too much—it was. Reduce the intensity or length of your workout next time. Consistency is the key. Keep in mind that any movement is beneficial, and small steps can lead to big changes.

Ever wonder why it's so hard to diagnose Lyme disease? Read about it here.

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