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The exercise conundrum

The exercise conundrum of Lyme

It seems almost counter intuitive to consider exercise when you’re so ill that getting out of bed is a struggle but there appears to be a growing band of support for exercise as a key part of a recovery plan – it’s an exercise conundrum.

Most doctors believe a level of exercise is beneficial for everyone, especially for people suffering from chronic illness, because it:

  • Stimulates blood flow and circulation to tissues, which improves drug efficacy
  • Increases temperature and blood oxygen
  • Increases muscle strength and mobility
  • Improves mood by the release of endorphins
  • Improves sleep

The main watch-out cited for Lyme disease patients, is whether the disease has affected the heart, which is why visiting a cardiologist is often recommended before starting an exercise program. However, assuming your illness doesn’t prevent you from exercising, there is the question of what type of exercise is best for you:

  • Aerobic exercises such as walking, running and cycling to increase the heart rate
  • Body strengthening using light resistance and weight machines
  • Stretching and flexibility using techniques such as yoga, pilates and tai chi

As with most things Lyme related there doesn’t seem to be any consensus about what is best, especially when it comes to aerobic exercise, with some physicians adamant that it shouldn’t be allowed, whilst others feel that light aerobics is permissible if the patient can tolerate it. Unfortunately, with little research and mainly anecdotal evidence to go on, there is no definitive answer – personally I pursued aerobic exercise and felt better for it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was medically correct – but the one point virtually all Lyme specialists agree on is that patients should mix different types of exercise, starting slowly and increasing gradually.

On the surface that advice sounds reasonable, but it’s important not to get downhearted if the “increasing gradually” bit isn’t as smooth as you would like. Ad hoc exercising when you feel like it seldom works even when you’re not ill – it’s the gym membership versus exercise class scenario; most people hit the gym hard for a few weeks when they join but without the commitment of a set day and time, it tends to drift, whereas people are much more likely to stick with a regular class – but when you are ill, ad hoc exercising is even less likely to work because the truth is you hardly ever “feel like it”. So, some sort of exercise plan will certainly help you, even if it’s no more complicated than circling an hour every few days on your calendar, but at the same time, it’s equally important to listen to your body and know when to stop. Patients with Lyme tend to experience repeated and lengthy ups and downs, which means there will be a number of those circled days when you are just not up to it, and doing too much could adversely affect your ability to heal as you drain your body of the energy it needs to fight the illness. Whilst you want to stick to your plan as much as possible, don’t worry too much about it if you miss one – it’s perfectly normal.

I’m convinced that exercise is an important part of the recovery process for people suffering from long term illness, not just physically but also psychologically. Whilst the medical benefits listed above are important, for me the biggest motivation was believing I was in control. I wanted to be proactive and show the Lyme devil that I wasn’t going to be beaten. No matter how ill I felt, I used to imagine that every second or every step of exercise was whacking the illness over the head with a giant hammer like the Whac-A-Mole machine at the fun fair, making me stronger and it weaker. Admittedly there were days when it might have got the upper hand, or made me pay for it the following day, but at some point, I would always try to get back up again and give it another shot. 

The key to exercise is finding what works for you and the beauty is you can do it on your own, or with the help of others.  If you’re not sure there’s lots of information and exercise apps online and plenty of local classes you can join – or you can always get in touch with a personal trainer to give you advice that’s geared to your own personal situation. 

Over the coming months, I’ll be adding more advice and opinion on exercise and other subjects (if you sign up to my newsletter, I’ll let you know when something new is published), but if there’s anything you’d be particularly interested in reading, please get in touch.