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How to Exercise While Chronically Ill

How to Exercise While Chronically Ill

I’ve learned a few tips and tricks through physical therapy (PT)  and general research to help get my body moving and my circulation going.

Once you’ve nailed down your motive and gotten yourself ready to go, here’s what you can do:

    1. Diaphragmatic Breathing: I learned this in PT as one of the first exercises. Lay on your back, close your eyes, and put your hands gently on your stomach. Take a slow inhale through your nose and take notice if you can feel your abdomen filling up instead of your chest. You want to fill your diaphragm, which will make you more present, and calm the fight or flight response that our chronically hurting bodies are in often. Then slowly exhale through your mouth and add a soft “shh” as the air escapes you. This is also great if you’re having a hard time focusing on a task or you’re in a panicked state. Use it as often as you need.
    2. Ankle Exercises: When you’ve sat up in bed, swing your legs over the side and do the alphabet by twirling your ankles. Both sides separately. This loosens up the joints and gets them ready to hit the floor and gets you from A to B gracefully throughout your day. This will also help to prevent ankle swelling and with that, foot pain you may be experiencing–not to mention, it’s a good way to wake up in the morning.  
    3. Stretching: Stretching daily is a great habit to develop. It helps you wake up and get ready for the day. You can do it standing, sitting or both. Start by just reaching up to the sky, down to the floor, and to each side. For more thorough stretches, try a beginner yoga class– if are suffering from a muscle or joint condition, inform the instructor when you arrive and they can offer you easy, yet effective modifications.
    4. Walking: I know movement of any kind can be difficult with chronic and complex illness, but if you can manage, go for a gentle at-your-own-pace 10 minute walk. Start with 10 minutes a few times a week. Then increase to 15 minutes, if you’re able. Walking is amazing for the body and really gets the circulation going and can help A LOT with weight loss if you do it consistently–it burns the same amount of calories as running.  Walking can release endorphins to improve your mood and it’s good for bone health and preventing diabetes. In fact, walking burns the same amount of calories as running–the only difference is muscle development. It’s just a good, accessible exercise.


  • Walking in a Pool/Aquatic Exercise: Go to your local pool, and spend 5 minutes walking across the pool. That’s all there is to it! Slowly increase the time you’re walking. It’s great for your muscles and joints because the water does a lot of the work for you. Don’t underestimate how much of a workout it is. You’ll definitely feel a little sore the next day. Nothing unbearable though! Aquatic exercise is also great if you are a fall risk, the pool is the safest place for you to exercise. Make sure you have water shoes to help in the water, and make sure you’re in water that only goes up to your waist. Here is a guide to aquatic exercises:



I know we hear all the bloody time that we need to exercise more. I hear it constantly from my many doctors. Well, I finally went to the pool and have been taking short walks. I feel lighter, perhaps not in weight, but just better about myself when I exercise. All those endorphins, I suppose!

If getting started with an exercise routine is the hardest part for you, spend some time making a list of possible rewards to treat yourself after you’ve completed a workout or a goal. Maybe you love taking bubble baths, listening to your absolute favorite album, getting a manicure, or going to a movie. Make a list of small and large rewards and figure out when it is appropriate to celebrate! Also, if you like stationery as much as I do, consider getting a fitness planner. Target has a few, and there are many online, such as Plum Paper Planner. They help with tracking your weight, measurements, workouts, reps, miles, and nutrition as well. I have found these to be helpful tools in my health toolkit.

The main takeaway is to find out what works for you! If you hate an exercise, you’ll never do it, so find a good routine. Trial and error is a huge part of exercise, and that is perfectly fine. Don’t beat yourself up if your illness takes one workout away from you, but get right back on that horse. It’s hard, but I believe in you! Good luck!
Are you or a loved one suffering from an undiagnosed chronic illness? See the other ways CrowdMed can help here.

Madeleine Gerlach

Author: Madeleine Gerlach