Exercise classes have become indispensable parts of wellness and entertainment routines for millions of people. Social exercise activities are especially important for autoimmune patients. So, what do you do when the gym or studio is closed?

This is the challenge that millions of us face: finding new ways of exercising during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns occurring in many cities, states, and countries. Fortunately, virtual exercise has grown from video and app roots, blooming into cloud-enabled classes and social events on web conference apps (Zoom, WebEx, HouseParty, etc.) for folks in quarantine.

Movement benefits autoimmune

For many with autoimmune diseases, any activity may be challenging. Movement therapy offers many benefits from preventing flares to improving mood (oh, those post-exercise endorphins!). Exercise makes us stronger and self-empowered. Moreover, exercise is good for our immune systems (and not just for the immunocompromised). There’s even scientific evidence in support of exercise to help autoimmune patients.

California is notorious for how many people hit the beach, trail, gym or studio for surfing, walking, weightlifting, hiking, aerobics, and dancing. Many people have favorite movement techniques like Pilates, Gyrotonics, Feldenkrais, and various yogas. Although gyms and studios are currently closed, California shelter-in-place rules explicitly allow outdoor activities with social distancing.

Of course, indoor and outdoor exercise programs have been popular all over, especially in cities and for people with desk jobs. Ironically, these are the folks most likely to be working from home or on lockdown right now. So we present some old and new tactics to bring exercise and coaching to shut-ins everywhere.

virtual exercise classes, quarantine, exercise program
Lockdown due to COVID-19 leads to increase in virtual exercise classes.

The rise of virtual and remote exercise

There is a longstanding cottage industry of print, online, audio, and video instruction for many movement modalities and therapies. This includes aerobics, bodybuilding, Feldenkrais, Pilates, Tai Chi, and various yogas. More recently, remote coaching for physical therapy and exercise has joined the parade of fitness and exercise apps available on mobile phones and tablet devices.

Since the pandemic lockdowns, shuttered gyms and studios and suddenly unemployed instructors have stepped up to keep their clients moving (and their incomes afloat) by offering classes via Zoom or other audio/video web-conferencing apps. These sessions have offered customers continuity and social connection with their coaches and classmates to relieve the trapped feeling so many individuals are dealing with.

Below are a variety of programs and resources, many of which we have tried and personally recommend. A word of caution: If you are trying something new on your own for the first time, be careful and go slow. Hands-on spotting can correct your form, and keep you from hurting yourself. Without it, users should be very mindful of safety and form on their own. A future post will cover dance and virtual dance parties.

Integrated programs

These are two of several programs offering fitness instruction through exercise apps with a focus on the autoimmune community:

Autoimmune Strong

Andrea Wool has established a name for herself with Autoimmune Strong. This is an integrated exercise program specifically for people living with autoimmune diseases. As an autoimmune patient herself, her frustration from the lack of suitable exercise led her to create her own program.

Autoimmune Strong is an individualized approach based on awareness of the fluctuating energy of people with autoimmune conditions.

  • Here is a link to one of her free explaners on YouTube. 
  • And here is the link to her home page from which you can access her full paid program. 

Plus a link to our previous review of her program.

Daily Burn

Daily Burn is an online fitness company offering exercise apps for all levels of interest and goals. Members of the autoimmune community have reported great success with their programs. Additionally, Daily Burn promotes across multiple social media platforms for high accessibility: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube.

Specific exercise techniques

Yoga

yoga, virtual exercise program
Yoga can be helpful in managing stress during self-isolation and quarantine.

Very brief history of yoga

Yogas are particularly well suited to lockdowns, since these are essentially solitary activities, traditionally taught by guru to student. However, a tradition of written yoga sutras goes back at least 5000 years to the Rig Veda. Yogic practices trickled out of India in the 19th c. to English and German esotericists.

In the 1920-30s, Swami Sivananda established Hatha Yoga ashrams around the world. His student, BKS Iyengar, tweaked Hatha Yoga for western bodies unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged on the ground. His books are still a good place to start learning Hatha Yoga. Today, yoga studios are commonplace in the Anglosphere and European cities. 

Yoga and autoimmunity

Some teachers with autoimmune disorders took up yoga as part of their own disease management. Here’s an instructor in Arkansas with a focus on multiple sclerosis.

If you practice under lockdown or in isolation, you honor yoga’s roots as solitary activity. Moreover, while you can still learn from books, the digital age has set off an explosion of yoga websites and instructional videos. Many of these focus specifically on people with autoimmune disease.

Some online yoga resources

Pilates 

Brief history of Pilates

Joseph Pilates was part of the German health movement that combined 19th C. mountaineering with esoteric practices like yoga (see above). Overcoming a frail childhood, Pilates became a gymnast, boxer and self-defense instructor. In fact, he developed his system while interned as an enemy alien in England during WWI. While working as an orderly, he created equipment out of bedsprings to help injured soldiers relearn walking. See this link for a complete biography

Then, after the war (and the influenza pandemic!) he emigrated to NYC in the 1920s with his wife Clara. Together they opened a body-conditioning gym. Their techniques were embraced by New York dance icons such as Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. Clara’s students later became teachers of Pilates’ methods, but as they opened their own studios to teach the method, they couldn’t use the name, “Pilates”, since it was trademarked.

However, in October 2000, a US Federal court decision declared Pilates an exercise method, like yoga and aerobics, not a defensible trademark like Feldenkrais and Gyrotonics. This ruling allowed Pilates studios to mushroom across the country. While Pilates studios across America have closed during the pandemic, many videos are online and easily accessible. 

Pilates for autoimmune

For Bonnie, Pilates was critical in helping her formulate her  “workout cocktail”. For you too, it may offer various benefits to alleviate chronic discomfort of autoimmune diseases and treatment side effects.

  • Start your day with Pilates! Try Jessica Valant’s short and energizing morning routine. 
  • Verywellfit’s approach to Pilates for chronic pain is accessible for those with autoimmune conditions. Here is Marguerite Ogle’s Pilates routine for low back pain
  • If you want to target specific areas of your body, this series of short, sweet videos by Cassey Ho at Blogilates could do the trick. 

Many Pilates studios and instructors have gone virtual under the lockdowns. First, check your local studio, gym or instructor for Zoom (or other platfrom) classes. Then, see the end of this post for a couple of Oakland, CA-based studios that offer Zoom classes.

Tai Chi

tai chi, virtual exercise program
Tai Chi is a great way to tap into your inner energy flow, helping you to find your center.

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is an ancient exercise practice rooted in Taoist philosophical precepts and Chinese martial arts. This is one of a family of Qigong practices that use controlled breath and movement to direct energy (Qi) for fitness, strength and health. It combines slow, flowing movements with a meditative mindset. While most famous in the West as a group activity for older people, it can certainly be performed alone or remotely.

Harvard Online Learning Tai Chi

Bonnie has tried Tai Chi several times over the years, but never really understood the intricacies of each move. So when we were first instructed to shelter in place, she invested $29 to learn Tai Chi online through Harvard Online Learning Program. “I am in the middle of the course and the simple explanations and video demos are breaking down the moves in a way that is finally making sense to me.”

David Dorian-Ross Morning Flow

Bonnie also recommends David Dorian-Ross’s Morning Flow Tai Chi series on YouTube. He gives excellent verbal cues, so you can follow along on your own. Here are two of his videos focused on chronic pain and energy, always concerns for autoimmune patients, especially under the stress of lockdown and restricted activity.

Feldenkrais

About the Feldenkrais Method

Moshe Feldenkrais was a Russian-born Israeli with a background in physics and engineering. First a soccer athlete, he was an early student of Jigoro Kano, the originator of Judo. Then, a chronic knee injury led him to develop his mindful, functional approach to movement, the Feldenkrais Method. He personally trained 3000 of the current 10,000 Feldenkrais practitioners.

Since Feldenkrais focuses on self-awareness with body movements, Bonnie found that it helped alleviate her chronic pain, and that long-term practice with Feldenkrais could improve other bodily functions, such as sleep, flexibility, breathing, and more. 

Feldenkrais with Alfons

A Guild Certified FELDENKRAIS® Practitioner, Alfons brings his Somatic Education approach online with a touch of Viennese gemutlichkeit and humor. Therefore, his style and personality make what can be a somewhat abstract set of concepts fun to learn.

Weight training (and bodybuilding)

weight training, body building, virtual exercise program

A word of caution

Weightlifting, especially with heavy weights, is riskier alone. If you work out at the gym, machines and racks reduce risk. Also, most weightlifters work with a human spotter. This is not only to have someone to coach your form and encourage effort but also to rescue you from that 100-pound barbell sitting on your chest!

Weight training and bodybuilding have a decades-long tradition of self-help books, magazines and videos. For example, Ellen and her husband did bodybuilding in the 1970s & ‘80s using only books (Bill Pearl, Mike Metzner) and magazines (thanks Joe Weider and Muscle & Fitness) to guide our routines.

We were surprised that “bodybuilding plus autoimmune” produced so many search hits.

Remote classes from Oakland

The Working Body offers virtual classes in Pilates mat and Gyrokinesis (a modality related  to Gyrotonics that doesn’t need special equipment).

PhysIQa is an expert studio in Oakland that is offering Zoom classes during the lockdown. These include roller release work for those of us doing more desk work than usual and classes for people with osteoporosis. Ellen has worked with Annabel for 15 years and Bonnie has joined one of her remote classes.

A follow-on post will discuss dance instruction and virtual dance parties. A future post will discuss hiking and walking during social distancing.

Salt Lake City virtual exercise resources

Check out this link for more exercise resources for Salt Lake City residents.

Web conference programs

For many people the most daunting thing about remote exercise is getting up the technology learning curve and feeling comfortable with on-screen apps. 

Here are some tips

  1. Don’t panic, people of all ages and tech skills are learning to use their phones, tablets, laptops and personal computers to access exercise sessions. 
  2. Learn the app in advance of class time. There will be plenty of confusion in the first few classes as students learn to use their hardware and software. Set aside some time the day before or a few hours in advance to check your hardware, download the app, learn the controls, test your audio and video. Even better, contact someone to do a test run with.
  3. Go easy on yourself, your classmates and the instructor. We’re most of us in new territory, so be patient as we figure the technology and session plans out.
  4. Once you master the basics, fine tune your approach. Adjust your lighting, camera angles and distance. Wear clothes that contrast with your background. Even spiff up your outfit and makeup. Hang a backdrop, or if you have a blue or green screen, many apps support CGI backgrounds–work out in space!

Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Ellen M. Martin, Annie Rooker

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