Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disease is when the immune system fails to recognize self from non-self, is chronically overactive, and mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells. Autoimmune rheumatic diseases (ARDs) are a group of systemic autoimmune disorders that mainly affect joints, bones and soft tissues and are associated with substantial morbidity and mortality.

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, with over half of them being considered rare. The overall estimated prevalence is 4.5% – 2.7% for males and 6.4% for females. An autoimmune disease can either be organ-specific or systemic. Some organ-specific autoimmune diseases include coeliac disease, gastritis, graves’ disease, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis (MS). In other autoimmune diseases the response seems to be directed against antigens that are widely expressed throughout the body. Some examples of systemic autoimmune diseases include systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), systemic sclerosis (SSc), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and polymyositis.

Exercise and Autoimmune Disease

Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour are highly prevalent in individuals with ARDs, with current estimates indicating around 60% of individuals with an ARD do not achieve the recommended amount of weekly physical activity (i.e., 150 min/week of moderate to-vigorous physical activity). Sedentary time for this population ranges between 8.3–14.0 hours per day, which is higher than for the general population.

Despite the additional barriers to exercise experienced by those with autoimmune disease, there are numerous benefits to being physically active. Exercise is known to:

  • Reduce fatigue and pain
  • Improve quality of life
  • Improve cardiovascular fitness
  • Increase independence and the ability to perform activities of daily living
  • Improve functional strength

Regular exercise appears to be safe and beneficial at a moderate intensity in modulating some of the most concerning symptoms, such as fatigue in people with SLE, SSc, RA and MS. Regular exercise training may lead to anti-inflammatory benefits in chronic diseases with systemic low-grade inflammation (i.e. type 2 diabetes) by reducing inflammatory markers, and is regarded as a valuable self-care intervention.


Exercise can be just as safe for people with an autoimmune disease as it is for people without, if there is a good understanding of the disease, symptoms, any side effects to medications, and the person. It is important if you have an autoimmune disease, your exercise program is supervised by an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who is able to tailor the exercise program to your individual needs.

Tips for exercising with autoimmune disease

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Listen to your body

You may have ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ with your autoimmune disease. There will be times when you will feel better and other times when you will have increased symptoms. This is often referred to as remission and/or flare-up. Listen to your body and adjust your training load accordingly.

Maintain hygiene

Common treatments for autoimmune diseases include different types of medication, which can compromise your immune system and make your body more prone to infection. It is important to ensure proper hygiene practices are in place during exercise, and that adequate rest is provided where needed.