Autoimmune Strong: A Personalized Exercise Program with Heart

The idea of "fitness" immediately brings to mind heavy lifters and marathon runners with intense and frequent exercise regimens. But what if this paradigm of fitness is actually doing more harm than good for patients with autoimmune conditions? DrBonnie360 explores the intricacies of Autoimmune Strong, a novel program that reshapes workouts and moderates fatigue and exercise intolerance for patients with chronic illnesses.

Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Kelsey Ouyang, Ishita Dubey, Ellen M. Martin

Although I was given a diagnosis of fibromyalgia more than 30 years ago, how I have managed the associated chronic pain has changed over time. In my thirties and forties I was a compliant patient who went to physical therapy every week. I tried acupuncture, yoga, adult ballet and swimming, but none of them stuck. Mostly, I was too busy trying to control the pain to even think of establishing an “exercise” program. 

Then, in my early fifties, I thought I had found a better way to manage my pain by adopting the Bar method, a fitness routine that combines the agility and balance of ballet with the brute intensity of weight lifting. I consistently exercised three to five times a week, aligning myself with the fitness zeitgeist and taking a “more is better” approach to alleviate my pain. The relief I felt after each class convinced me I was on the right track. I thought I had finally conquered my chronic pain. But I was wrong.

In my late fifties, I sustained a repetitive motion hip injury, most likely from my overzealous engagement in the Bar method without first building a foundation of core strength. Then, after two Shingles outbreaks (maybe triggered by exercise), I found myself bed-ridden with exercise intolerance.  

My joyful post-workout endorphin rush was no more. Left with no choice but to change my workout routine again, I began to experiment with other methods, which I like to call “movement therapies”. I have tried pool therapy, yoga therapy, tai-chi, qigong, Feldenkrais, and gyrotonics. These exercises combine strength training, flexibility, and mobility movements and promote mind-body connections. Click here to learn more about movement therapies (link to Movement Therapy e-book).  

Female in yoga exercise pose

After experimentation with different exercise modalities, I have learned to balance the fatigue and pain associated with my autoimmune diseases. In my current weekly routine, I alternate between yoga therapy, Feldenkrais, and gyrotonics and have found this routine to be very successful in managing pain and keeping me active. Still, I wonder if I could have avoided many years of frustration if I had been guided properly from the start.

Had I met Andrea, founder of Autoimmune Strong, when I was 50, I believe she could have advised me about which exercises could mitigate my pain and injuries rather than exacerbate them. In her program, she focuses on progression, pacing, and posture. Rather than emphasizing high intensity, she emphasizes consistency. Instead of diving into complex movements, she starts with basic movements that prime the body for working out and ensures that proper postural muscles are strengthened before transitioning to tougher exercises. Additionally, she underlines the importance of having correct posture as incorrect form can lead to injuries. Her principles and foundations, as well as the scientifically backed reasoning behind them, proves why her workout videos have helped so many autoimmune patients.

Founder of Exercise Program for Autoimmune Patients

In her videos, Andrea focuses on body parts that are typically ignored by traditional fitness. As a loyal podiatrist visitor and sock enthusiast, I have long sought a method to help my hurting feet. Demonstrating foot exercises, she emphasized the importance of paying attention to this often neglected body part. Furthermore, she also shows modifications that allow users to personalize their workouts for their own needs and limits.

For example, I was always told that using rollers was important for me to help break tension and adhesions within the fascia. I have bought numerous rollers, but I felt pain while rolling and was frustrated to see no benefits. Doctors and physical therapists always told me to “do it better, longer”, but Andrea’s videos suggest a different mindset: “less is more”. She recommends a Tiger Tail roller and shows modification videos of how to use the wall as support when using this piece of equipment. I purchased the roller just a few days ago, and have already noticed a huge difference for myself when using it in conjunction with the video.

As I explore Andrea’s program, I am finally understanding why the movement therapies I am currently doing have been helpful for me. Not only have I learned over the years that I need to define my limits of exercise tolerance, but I also recognize that my current suite of exercises actually decreases my stress level and limits my propensity for having chronic flare-ups.

Andrea and other members of the autoimmune community continue to leave me in awe with innovations like Autoimmune Strong. This fortified network of people continuously create products and services to assist other autoimmune patients motivated by love and kindness, rather than commercial interest. I am so excited to be bringing this beautiful facet of our community to a bigger audience in my A4M talk this December. 


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