Exercise and chronic disease: Get the facts

If you have a chronic condition, you might have questions about exercising. How often can you exercise? Which exercises are safe? Understand the basics about exercise and chronic disease.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you have a chronic disease — such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, or back or joint pain — exercise can have important health benefits. However, it's important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine. He or she might have advice on what exercises are safe and any precautions you might need to take while exercising.

Find out what you need to know about exercise and chronic disease.

How can exercise improve a chronic condition?

If you have a chronic condition, regular exercise can help you manage symptoms and improve your health.

Aerobic exercise can help to improve your heart health and endurance and aid in weight loss. Strength training can improve muscle strength and endurance, make it easier to do daily activities, slow disease-related declines in muscle strength, and provide stability to joints. Flexibility exercises may help you to have optimal range of motion about your joints, so they can function best, and stability exercises may help reduce the risk of falls.

For example:

  • Heart disease. Regular exercise can help improve your heart health. Recent studies have shown that interval training is often tolerated well in people with heart disease, and it can produce significant benefits.
  • Diabetes. Regular exercise can help insulin more effectively lower your blood sugar level. Physical activity also can help you control your weight and boost your energy.
  • Asthma. Often, exercise can help control the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
  • Back pain. Regular low-impact aerobic activities can increase strength and endurance in your back and improve muscle function. Abdominal and back muscle exercises (core-strengthening exercises) may help reduce symptoms by strengthening the muscles around your spine.
  • Arthritis. Exercise can reduce pain, help maintain muscle strength in affected joints and reduce joint stiffness.

What exercises are safe?

Your doctor might recommend specific exercises to reduce pain or build strength. Depending on your condition, you might also need to avoid certain exercises altogether or during flare-ups. In some cases, you might need to consult a physical or occupational therapist before starting to exercise.

If you have low back pain, for example, you might choose low-impact aerobic activities, such as walking and swimming. These types of activities won't strain or jolt your back.

If you have exercise-induced asthma, you might choose activities that involve short bursts of activity — such as tennis or baseball. If you use an inhaler, be sure to keep it handy while you exercise.

If you have arthritis, the exercises that are best for you will depend on the type of arthritis and which joints are involved. Work with your doctor or a physical therapist to create an exercise plan that will give you the most benefit with the least aggravation on your joints.

How often, how much and at what intensity can I safely exercise?

Before starting an exercise routine, it's important to talk to your doctor about how long your exercise sessions can be and what level of intensity is safe for you.

If you haven't been active for a while, start slowly and build up gradually. Ask your doctor what kind of exercise goals you can safely set for yourself as you progress.

June 20, 2015 See more In-depth