Get Moving: Chronic Illness and the Benefits of Exercise

By Andrea M. Risi, LPC, Health / Illness / Medical isssues  Topic Expert Contributor

True or false: If you’re coping with a chronic illness, exercise can be one way to manage your physical and emotional symptoms.

If you said true, you are correct! In the past, doctors suggested rest and relaxation for those coping with chronic illnesses such as arthritis and diabetes. “Take it easy” and bed rest were common recommendations. However, with evidence increasingly pointing to the benefits of being active, doctors are now encouraging people diagnosed with a chronic illness to exercise.

The physical benefits of exercise can help:

  • Build a stronger heart muscle to combat heart disease.
  • Effectively lower blood sugar levels in regard to diabetes.
  • Improve muscle strength to help stabilize your back and improve muscle function.
  • Reduce pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • Control the frequency and duration of asthma attacks.

Not only can exercise help with physical symptoms, but it can improve emotional issues such as depression and anxiety as well. There is a growing body of research about the connection between our mental and physical health. In a study at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, researchers discovered people with better mental health felt less pain, while people with worse mental health felt more pain. The mind-body connection works in a positive way when we engage the “feel-good chemicals” in our brain, like serotonin and dopamine, through exercise. These neurotransmitters work to improve moodsexual desire, appetite, sleep, and memory.

I know what you’re saying: “How can I exercise when I feel so terrible?” or “I can’t exercise; I’m in too much pain!” Those are legitimate concerns, and it’s possible that your physical activity has been limited because of your illness. Remember, though, that aerobic exercise has been found to decrease depressive symptoms and to reduce disability and pain among people with arthritis. Who doesn’t want to feel less pain? Or have fewer symptoms?

If you are ready to get moving, here are some tips for getting started with an exercise routine:

  1. Talk with your doctor. It is imperative that you talk with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise program to determine the kinds of activities and intensity levels you can handle. Working with an experienced personal trainer who is aware of your medical concerns can be helpful when getting started in a new exercise routine.
  2. Start slowly and build up. If you haven’t exercised in a while, take time to build your endurance. A few minutes of walking is better than no minutes of walking. Your body will adapt and grow stronger with regular exercise.
  3. Choose activities you enjoy. If you like the activity, you’ll keep coming back for more. Exercising with a buddy can help keep you motivated and accountable. Alternate your activities to keep exercise fresh and energizing.

Getting started is the challenge, but the benefits are countless. I’ve never had a person I counsel in therapy say he or she wants to maintain his or her current level of pain or intensity of symptoms; everyone wants to feel healthier and stronger. I also rarely hear feedback that exercising was a waste of time or had ill effects. In fact, I hear just the opposite. The vast majority of people express feeling happier and more energized, and they often report fewer symptoms.

So isn’t it time to get moving?


  1. Chapman, D., Perry, G., & Strine, T. (2005). The Vital Link Between Chronic Disease and Depressive Disorders. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2012). Exercise and chronic disease: Get the facts. Retrieved from
  3. Nauert, R. (2010, August 2). Arthritis Pain Depends on Mental Health. PsychCentral. Retrieved from http://com/news/2010/08/02/arthritis-pain-depends-on-mental-health/16293.html

© Copyright 2015 by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, therapist in Denver, CO.

Copyright © 2007 – 2015

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