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How to Successfully Exercise When You Have a Chronic Illness

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How to Successfully Exercise with a Chronic Illness

Welcome to the IG Living Advocate podcast. I am your host, Abbie Cornett, the patient advocate for IG Living magazine, the only magazine dedicated to patients treated with immune globulin products and their care providers. Each podcast episode will give listeners an opportunity to hear from experts on a topic important to you.

In this episode, we will be talking about how to successfully exercise with a chronic illness. Today, we have with us guest speaker Matt Hansen. Matt has a clinical background in physical therapy with a specialty in chronic health conditions. He is a passionate advocate for population health and holistic care who believes when recipients of care are a partner in the process and the center of every decision made, true and lasting differences can be made for their well-being. Because of Matt’s desire to improve healthcare and the impact it has on others in a functional setting, he has spent the last 10 years in home health. Currently, Matt serves as executive director for the Homecare and Hospice Association of Utah and has deputy roles with the Home Care Association of Colorado, the Colorado chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association and the home health academy of the American Physical Therapy Association. He is also a healthcare and business practice consultant and a successful entrepreneur with 15 years of professional writing and speaking experience who loves being able to do his part to make the world a better place.

Abbie: Good morning, Matt, and thank you for joining us. Starting an exercise program can be difficult for everyone, but for those with a chronic illness, it can be even more challenging. I thought today we could cover some of the questions patients might have.

The first question I have is: Who should patient consult when thinking about starting an exercise program?

Matt: Thank you, Abbie, it’s great to be here. Individuals should start by consulting with their doctor or whoever their primary care practitioner is before beginning any exercise program. Those practitioners will have the best understanding of each patient’s specific condition and what special precautions should be considered. Some doctors may feel comfortable helping to set up a program, but if they’re not, they can refer patients to a physical therapist or athletic trainer who has a background in working with individuals who have a chronic illness. It often doesn’t take more than one to three visits for an exercise professional to get to know the person and his or her needs and to help set up a program that can then be followed at home. But just to be sure, individuals should check back with that professional periodically or at least any time there’s a significant change in how to reassess the program. I always recommend if people have any type of change in their symptoms or if they experience severe lasting pain from any of activities, they should stop and consult with their healthcare professional.

Abbie: Thank you, Matt. Once a patient has been given the OK by their doctor to exercise, how do they choose a place to exercise? Can you please go over some of the pros and cons of exercising at home versus at a gym, and some other factors patients need to consider when making their decisions?

Matt: That’s a great question. There are a number of factors to consider. My initial response would be to go somewhere you feel safe and motivated to exercise. There are a lot of pros and cons to both exercising at home and at a gym. For example, even though most gyms are going above and beyond to apply infection control, especially right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still not your home environment, and there are a lot of sweating bodies breathing hard and potentially not wiping down equipment after using it. The social aspect of a gym can be a great motivator for some people, but it can also be a detriment to others such as exercising in front of others or being worried about what they look like in their workout clothes. However, during the pandemic, streaming classes are another option. With these, you can interact with instructors and other participants from home. Finally, I’d say another benefit of gyms can be the proximity and access to trainers who, if informed of your condition, can help to adjust and advance exercises appropriately. However, their services usually come with additional costs, as well as the extra step of having to get up and go to the gym, which is enough to keep many people from being consistent. I’ve read reports that somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 new gym attendees who sign up for the gym in January as part of a New Year’s resolution quit within five months.

Abbie: So, after a patient decides where they’re going to exercise, how do they get started?

Matt: This is one of my favorite things to talk about because if you have the desire to do something, start today. Don’t wait. Have that conversation with your doctor, and get started. Oftentimes, people fall into the New Year’s mentality, and they wait to get started. They set a date sometime in the future, they get pumped up and then they come off of the starting block. The problem with that is they usually overdo it. They’re all pumped up with adrenaline, they’re excited and they overdo it and end up burning themselves out or, worse, they injure themselves and then stop. So rather than starting at a sprint, I recommend starting by doing a little bit more and warming up to a full program. As you do, you’ll get to know your body and its abilities and limitations. Again, a physical therapist or properly trained athletic trainer can be a great resource to get started, but be sure he or she is familiar with your condition or willing to become familiar with it by doing some homework.

Abbie: I know you’ve already answered the pros and cons of exercising at home versus at a gym, but for many of our listeners, going to the gym is not an option because of their illness. Can you give them some suggestions for how they can start an exercise program at home if they don’t have any equipment?

Matt: Definitely. Someone might think they don’t have exercise equipment at home, but they do. Many household items can be used as exercise equipment. For example, to create more resistance, a gallon of milk or water bottles filled with either water or sand can be used as light weights. There are a thousand different adaptations that can be made even without equipment. The body’s own weight can be used as resistance. For example, a push-up can be modified as a wall push-up. There are a lot of different examples: A standing hip extension or standing and extending your leg behind you, which targets the glutes, can be adapted so you’re doing pelvic bridging. Wall squats or even stepping up onto a lower step can help to target those same muscles. You don’t need a lot of space to exercise either. You can get your heart rate up by marching in place, using a stationary bike, climbing stairs or just walking or jogging around the block.

Abbie: How should individuals set their goals, and what is the best way to keep track of their progress through their fitness program?

Matt: Another good question. First and foremost, it’s important to set goals that are functional. So make goals that mean something for you. Being able to bench press 200 pounds might sound like a cool goal and it might give someone some bragging rights, but how is that really going to improve your day-to-day activity? Think about things you can do that are going to make a difference in your function and make you feel good about yourself, but also help you to do more in life such as improving stamina. Secondly, it’s important to have long-term goals and short-term goals that will help you achieve your long-term goals. For example, if you want to be able to stay on your feet and walk for 30 minutes consecutively without your joints hurting and getting stiff, you may need to start with a goal of five minutes and then celebrate those short-term goals as they’re achieved and make them your new baseline. As you continue to steadily work toward where you want to be, it’s OK if there are ebbs and flows, particularly in the disease process. If you’ve found you’ve regressed some, that’s all right, Don’t feel you have to go out again and do everything you can to catch up. Steadily continue your program as you’re able, and be realistic about what can be achieved in a short time. Don’t be afraid to take baby steps. As far as tracking, I highly recommend an exercise journal. Journals can be great for many things, including symptom management, and exercise is no exception. Write down how you feel after a workout, what worked, what didn’t work, and record your activity so you can see your progress.

Abbie: Thank you so much for joining us Matt. I’d like to point out that Matt has authored an article on this topic for IG Living magazine titled “Staying Fit at Home,” which can be read at

Additional information regarding this podcast can be found on our website at If readers have a question that was not answered, please contact me at [email protected]. Look for the next IG Living Advocate podcast announcement on our website for the opportunity to submit your questions.

IG Living Advocate is a copyright production of IG Living magazine published by FFF Enterprises. It is the only magazine for the immune globulin community comprised of patients who suffer from chronic illness and their caregivers.