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Staying Fit Despite Lupus

26 April 2018

By: June Owens

Ten years ago, I received a diagnosis that would change my life and how I choose to spend my time. Though I had been doctoring for many years for the varying symptoms as most patients with this disease do, I still remember the exact day my rheumatologist said I have Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. I knew absolutely NOTHING about Lupus prior to this day and I now try to help educate others along my journey. May of each year which has been designated as National Lupus Awareness Month so it’s another prefect time to get the word out.

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can cause damage to any part of the body. The immune system, typically charged with keeping us healthy, misfires and begins attacking normal body cells and tissues. It perceives these parts of the body as being foreign invaders like the flu. Symptoms like the following worsen during flares and improve to varying degrees during other periods of time.

• Joint pain, with or without swelling
• Butterfly-shaped rash on face, across bridge of nose, and on cheeks
• Mouth and/or nose ulcers
• Extreme fatigue
• Fevers
• Headaches, confusion, and/or memory loss
• Blood disorders such as anemia, low platelets (thrombocytopenia), or low white blood cell counts
• Pain when breathing (pleurisy)
• Sun or light sensitivity
• Hair loss
• Kidney inflammation (nephritis)
• Gastrointestinal tract problems

 There are approximately 16,000 new cases of Lupus diagnosed yearly with over 50 genetic markers possibly linked to the cause of disease development along with hormone and environmental factors. Lupus is NOT contagious! No cures are currently available but numerous medications are used to treat disease activity. Much research is needed to continue providing insight in these areas. You can learn much more at

Caring for ourselves first is important when suffering with any chronic illness and every new day, both with trials and triumphs, tells our story. Starting with a physician-approved exercise routine that rotates to avoid overworking any particular muscle group is important. We may not be able to do too much, especially on the most challenging days, but doing too little (or nothing at all) robs us of the physical, emotional, and social benefits of exercise.

• Physical > Lupus can cause an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and staying active can help fight this. Exercise also provides the benefits of regulating chemicals involved in the inflammation process, helps control weight gain that can be a side affect of many medications, reduces fatigue, and can help with muscle stiffness and range of motion. As I learned quickly, low impact exercises like walking, water aerobics, pilates, yoga, stretching, bicycling, and use of elliptical machines tone muscles and strengthen bones without aggravating inflamed joints that are quite common in many rheumatological diseases like Lupus.

• Emotional > Living with chronic illness can be depressing and research shows that exercise releases chemicals in the brain that can aid in improving mood. Even on my most challenging days, my self esteem increases when I’m able to follow through with an exercise commitment, even when modifications may be needed.

• Social > Partnering up with a buddy and sharing the life journey is important. I’ve met others through water aerobics classes and even simply walking on a treadmill that are challenged with varying degrees of physical life challenges. Hearing their stories and sharing mine has become just as important as the physical part of exercise and the accountability in seeing them again at the next class has proven priceless.

Lupus patients often hear "But you don't look sick". Please know that someone you work with, a friend, a relative, a neighbor, or the person you see walking next to you on the track may be fighting very hard against this disease even if you can't see it. And if you’re the one fighting, I hope to see you at the YMCA and we’ll share our stories of encouragement and strength!