Discover the benefits and strategies of Cycling with Lupus. Empower your life through exercise and improve your overall health and well-being
“Cycling With Lupus has changed my life drastically,” shares Val Peterson, “It is a tough disease that continues to evolve in my body and challenges me every day.” Valerie is a married mother of two young boys from Colorado, USA. She is a former marathoner who has always loved fitness and endurance sports and making friends while staying in shape.
Valerie and her husband Brandon discovered virtual cycling on Zwift, and their healthy obsession snowballed quickly. She began racing, and it was clear that she had a talent for cycling esports. Team Draft recruited her, and Valerie competed at the elite level for several years.
“The camaraderie of being part of a team was the best, and I loved it,” notes Val, “However, my health started taking a turn.” While racing, she developed significant fatigue, chest and joint pain, and circulatory issues, and she says, “I started feeling just horrible.”
The symptoms Val experienced prompted her to seek medical consultation. After seeing multiple specialists and receiving countless tests, she was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, approximately 1.5 million Americans and five million people worldwide have lupus. The estimated lupus prevalence in North America is 241/100,000 people.
The number of individuals with lupus has nearly doubled since 1976, and there are 16,000 new cases reported annually. Ninety percent of people living with lupus are women between 15 and 44. Women age 35 to 44 with lupus are fifty times more likely to suffer a heart attack.
What is Lupus and How Does It Affect the Body?
Lupus is an autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and organs. This immune system dysfunction leads to inflammation throughout the body, affecting various organs such as the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, and lungs. While the exact cause of lupus is unknown, experts believe it is due to genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors.
“My main symptoms are extreme fatigue, joint pain, rashes, circulation problems (can’t regulate my body temperature), chest pain, and sun sensitivity,” shares Valerie.
Lupus can present several challenges when it comes to physical activity and exercise. The most common symptoms experienced by individuals with lupus include fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, fever, and organ-specific symptoms. These symptoms can fluctuate, making it difficult for individuals to maintain consistent exercise routines.
Fatigue is one of the most debilitating symptoms of lupus, often described as an overwhelming sense of exhaustion not relieved by rest. It can significantly impact energy levels and motivation to engage in physical activity. Additionally, joint pain and stiffness are common, making movement and high-impact exercises more challenging. Individuals may experience muscle weakness and increased sensitivity to sunlight as well.
Common Lupus Symptoms
Lupus can affect almost every organ, and no two cases are the same. Common lupus symptoms include:
Please remember these symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, and the presence of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate Lupus. Always consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.
On average, people living with lupus take nearly eight prescription medications to manage the associated medical conditions. The drug side effects and other treatments contribute to lethargy and fatigue.
“I take countless medications daily to help manage some of the symptoms,” says Valerie, and “I also get an IV infusion of a lupus biologic every four weeks, which knocks me down pretty hard for a few days.”
There is no cure for lupus. Treatment aims to prevent flairs, reduce organ damage and other complications, symptom modification and comfort.
The Benefits of Cycling With Lupus
Valerie credits cycling with helping her to combat fatigue. Despite awakening each morning with the pain of stiff and swollen joints and a body that feels heavy and exhausted, she always takes a bike ride.
Lower Impact on Joints
Cycling is ideal for those with lupus due to its gentler nature on your joints. Cycling lets your joints move without direct weight-bearing stress, unlike running or high-impact sports. It’s particularly beneficial for people with lupus, who often experience joint inflammation and pain.
Valerie explains: “It loosens my joints, and I immediately feel better. Some days I think I should be sleeping for my fatigue, but on the days I sleep in, I feel incredibly sore and lethargic all day, so I rarely sleep in. My doctors have also stressed the importance of staying active to keep my joints moving and loosen them up. It is always in the back of my mind—I gotta keep moving.”
Improves Cardiovascular Health
When you pedal, your heart pumps faster. This action improves your cardiovascular system, strengthening your heart and lungs over time. Regular cycling can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels—common issues in Lupus patients.
Lupus patients have many actual and perceived barriers to exercise. A 2021 review published in the Journal of Clinic Medicine suggests that, compared to sedentary controls, lupus patients have reduced aerobic fitness, exercise capacity, and muscle strength, leading to reduced ability to perform physical activity.
Mood Enhancement and Stress Reduction
Endorphins, often known as “feel-good” hormones, get released during physical activities like cycling. These endorphins can help improve mood, reducing feelings of anxiety and depression, which are unfortunately common among lupus patients.
Valerie admits: “Lupus is mentally challenging on me. My life has changed significantly, and I must plan everything around my medicines and flares. I am always freezing or too hot and deal with pain daily. I always try to stay positive, but sometimes my health gets the best of me. The bike is my happy place, though. It immediately makes me smile and brightens up my tough days, and the endorphins help too!”
A 2017 systematic review of exercise and physical activity in lupus revealed that therapeutic exercise programs appear safe and do not adversely affect disease activity. Fatigue, depression, and physical fitness people living with lupus experience improved following exercise-based interventions.
Building Muscle Strength and Stamina
Cycling maintains and builds strength, particularly in the lower body muscles, and increases stamina over time, contributing to overall physical resilience. This increased resilience can help those with lupus manage their symptoms better.
Cycling offers a physical outlet for those living with lupus but also helps them improve their quality of life. Regular cyclists report better cardiovascular health, improved moods, and increased stamina—critical factors for effectively managing lupus.
Tips for Cycling with Lupus
Cycling with lupus can be an empowering experience but requires special considerations. Here are some handy tips to make your cycling journey smoother.
Best Times to Cycle With Lupus
Sunlight exposure can aggravate lupus symptoms, making it essential to choose your cycling times wisely. Early morning or late evening, when the sun is less intense, are ideal times to ride.
Valerie explains: “Lupus causes severe sun sensitivity. If I go in the sun without fully covering up, my body breaks out in a rash, and my joints swell up. Because of this, it is infrequent for me to ride outside anymore. Again, thank heavens for Zwift.”
Hydration and Nutrition
Hydration is essential, mainly when you’re riding hard and sweating. Keep a water bottle handy during your rides. Consuming balanced meals focusing on lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also support your energy levels.
Pacing and Managing Fatigue and Injury
Listen to your body. If you’re tired, slow your pace or take a break. It is crucial for managing lupus, as overexertion can lead to flares. Rest periods are as important as exercise when cycling with lupus.
Valerie shares: “Lupus also makes me more prone to injuries because of all the inflammation in my body from the disease. I have had several in the past few years and must prioritize strength training, stretching, and recovery daily.”
Handling Potential Flare-ups When Cycling With Lupus
Be prepared for the possibility of a lupus flare-up during or after cycling. Know your limits and have a plan in place, like having a friend or family member on standby to pick you up if needed. Make sure to bring any necessary medications with you on your ride.
Valerie concurs: Riding is a balance, though. I can’t overdo it. When most people do a hard ride, they are tired and have sore legs. I physically get sick, and my joints and body get super angry and painful, with chest pain, rashes, and intense fatigue.
It can ruin the next two days for me if I overdo it and put me into a lupus flare.”
Importance of Safety Gear
Cyclists should always wear a helmet and protective clothing. However, for those cycling with lupus, consider clothing with UV protection to guard against photosensitivity. Ensure your gear is comfortable to avoid causing any additional pain or discomfort.
Managing Expectations When Cycling With Lupus
The unfortunate reality when cycling with lupus is that you may have to make a choice. You may have to carefully choose your rides and races and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” as Valerie explains.
“I love to race. I am very competitive and love to challenge myself. However, I rarely do anymore because of the aftermath. I can’t do challenging rides successive days in a row. My body hurts too much, and I build up too much fatigue.
I leave rides early a lot. I hate doing it and never want to, but it’s because I am in pain. I have to make the right choice.”
Incorporating Cycling into a Balanced Lifestyle
Maintaining a balanced lifestyle is crucial for managing Lupus. Here are some strategies to help you blend cycling into your life, enhancing its benefits while controlling your condition.
Embracing a Balanced Diet
A balanced diet is vital for cyclists and even more crucial for those with lupus. Eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods can fuel your body and aid recovery after a ride. For instance, proteins help repair your muscles, carbohydrates provide energy, and fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals.
Rest and Relaxation
Rest is an essential counterpart to activity, especially when living with a chronic condition like lupus. Rest days are vital for muscle recovery and preventing fatigue. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can help manage stress, which can often trigger flare-ups.
While cycling can be a great core activity for exercise, complementing it with other exercises can help balance your fitness. Strength training can improve your cycling performance, and flexibility exercises, like yoga or pilates, can help keep your joints supple and reduce stiffness.
Building a Support Network
Connecting with other cyclists or lupus patients can provide emotional support, motivation, and shared understanding. Whether in person or online, these communities can be a valuable resource for tips, encouragement, and shared experiences.
Valerie found that indoor virtual cycling on Zwift greatly enhanced her motivation to keep active and manage her condition positively.
Conclusion—Cycling With Lupus
Living with lupus presents unique challenges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lead an active lifestyle. With its many benefits, cycling can be an excellent exercise choice for those managing this condition. From its low-impact nature to cardiovascular benefits and mood-boosting capabilities, cycling can positively impact physical health and overall well-being.
Incorporating cycling into your routine should be done gradually and with care. Remember the importance of selecting appropriate cycling times, maintaining hydration and nutrition, pacing yourself, and preparing for potential lupus flare-ups. In addition, incorporating a balanced diet, adequate rest, complementary exercises, and building a supportive network can enhance the benefits of cycling while effectively managing your symptoms.
However, the first and foremost step before starting or altering any exercise routine is consulting with your healthcare provider. Cycling can provide numerous benefits, but ensuring the activity suits your specific situation and needs is crucial.
This journey towards cycling with Lupus might seem challenging at first, but remember, you’re not alone.
“I am working on giving my body grace,” shares Val, “I know it’s all part of learning to live with cycling with lupus.”
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!