I was diagnosed with Systemic lupus (SLE) over 20 years ago. I felt pretty good for most of that time, but the last 5 years have seen my symptoms grow progressively worse.
Systemic lupus is a progressive, disabling disease. It affects every major organ in your body and can leave you feeling like a truck hit you. Staying fit when you’re over 50 is hard enough, but staying fit when your body rebels against most of what you do is quite another. About 3 years ago, I gave up on exercising at all. Now I’ve started again, and the change in what I can do and what I could do 3 years ago is enormous.
My Energy Level is Lower than a Snake’s Belly
Chronic fatigue is part of SLE, and outside factors can make it worse, such as stress, heat, and improper nutrition. A few very stressful years decimated my energy. After a diagnosis of malabsorption disorder, my energy took another nosedive. Due to the intense Florida heat, my exercise has to be in the early mornings, because by evening I’m too tired.
Starting out Slowly is the Only Way
To restart my exercise routine, I simply started walking a few days a week. I walked a little further every day, then I would add a day. Now I try to walk 3 miles a day, 5 days a week at a brisk pace. I’m not a power walker like before, because it’s too taxing on my body.
Using Weights to Build Body Strength
After a couple of weeks of walking, I added simple upper body exercises with 3 and 5 pound weights. I started with 1 set each of 10 bicep curls, 10 tricep extensions and 10 side arm lifts 1 day a week, working up to 3 days. After a month I added 10 overhead lifts. I’m now up to 1 set of 25 each 3 days a week using 5 pound weights. Doing more reps or heavier weights puts a strain on my muscles and joints, causing me a lot of pain.
Joint and muscle pain is a part of SLE that limits how far you can push yourself. Where most people would probably be much further than I am, I’m not in control of how much I can do, my disease is.
Lower Body Exercise is the Most Difficult
Because my knees are pretty much shot by the arthritis and deterioration of my knee caps caused by the SLE, exercising my lower body is much harder than my upper body. I have to do most of my lower body work either sitting or lying down, because my knees won’t support my weight.
My sitting exercises include wearing 5 pound ankle weights on each leg and doing lower leg lifts, raising my knee up towards my chest and leg scissors. I can only do 10 of each, but I started with once a week, and am now up to 3 days a week.
My floor mat exercises consist of 10 leg lifts on each side and 25 situps. I wish I could do more situps, but my spine can’t take it. I’m now up to 3 days a week.
I do a few exercises on my knees, but it’s not consistent, because it depends on how my knees feel that day. I try to do back leg kicks for my hamstrings and strengthen my front thighs by sitting on my knees and leaning my upper body backward with arms extended in front for balance. That’s always an iffy one, since I can’t do squats, and don’t have much strength in my thighs.
This seems like a pretty light exercise routine to normal people. My age and my illness make this the best I can do. If I had access to a swimming pool, I could do more because it’s easier and less painful to move in water. Walking is really the easiest exercise for me, and depending on my pain and fatigue level, some days it’s all I can do. Some days I can’t exercise at all.
For someone who used to train female body builders, not being able to exercise the way I want is depressing. I want to be thin and healthy, but my illness stops me from being the person I want to be. I’m thankful for what I can do, but there is still a part of me that wants to be that healthy, happy 23-year-old who was teaching other women how to be fit and beautiful.