Nutrition and exercise for chronic conditions

Date: Wed 27th November 2019

Many things can impact the quality of a person's life, especially if you are living with a long-term chronic condition like scleroderma or Raynaud's phenomenon. While neither condition has a cure, there are many ways to help manage the conditions, including better nutrition and exercise.

Although the same things will not work for every single patient, there are a few options that can improve your quality of life without breaking the bank or overturning your whole life.

But firstly, how do scleroderma and Raynaud's phenomenon impact our mobility and nutrition?

Scleroderma is a variable condition and it's rare for patients to exhibit the exact same symptoms, however, there are overarching similarities. These include, tightness of skin, gastrointestinal problems, loss of dexterity in joints due to soft tissue damage, painful joints and reduced mobility.

Living with a chronic illness makes nutrition even more important than it is for the average person. Our bodies need that extra kick of energy to fight the battle our body wrestles with on a daily basis. But a little nutritious food and light exercise can go a long way!

Furthermore, the gut is affected in 90% of patients with systemic scleroderma, so an awareness of nutrition is even more important if you have this type.

Raynaud's phenomenon usually affects the hands and feet in patients. Many patients find that this reduces the dexterity in their hands and feet.

How can nutrition improve quality of life for patients living with scleroderma and Raynaud's phenomenon?

It may seem overly simplistic to discuss nutrition, but it is often shunted aside when our health does not accommodate making nutritious meals three times a day.

While living with these conditions can increase our likelihood of relying on those tasty ready meals and takeaways, there are plenty of options to help improve your nutrition.

It is important to consult your GP before you make any significant dietary or exercise changes in your life.

What are your options for better nutrition?

Supplements can be your best friend and there are countless options out there to help you fill in gaps in your diet. Four of the most important things to get into your diet are Vitamin D, Omega 3s, Calcium and Iron. If you're struggling to squeeze these into your diet, why not try some supplements to give you an additional boost?

Instead of relying on the usual routine of three meals a day, try eating smaller meals every three to four hours. This routine is better for your metabolism and you'll be able to avoid overeating, which causes strain on the gut.

If you struggle to cut up fruit and vegetables because of mobility issues, then pre-cut ingredients are your new best friends! All supermarkets sell them and most of them can be popped straight in the oven. Fruits and vegetables can also reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure and they are a great source of fibre. The same can be said for most meat products, which can usually be found pre-prepared in the cold aisles of your local supermarket.

While you're stocking up, check out your local supermarket's ready meal selection. Although ready meals are not ideal for good nutrition, there are plenty of healthy options out there for you to use on days when cooking is just not an option.

Some people with chronic illness also find following a specific diet can be helpful. These include sugar free, dairy free and alkaline – which reduces the amount of acid in your diet and can improve gut health. There are countless options out there, so take the time to find one that feels right for you and your hungry belly.

Lastly, foods that are high in sugar and fats can have a negative impact on your health. Although we all love a sugary treat, there are many alternative options to explore. Try picking up a new healthy snack from your supermarket every week and you will find your new favourite treat before you know it.

How can exercise improve quality of life for patients living with scleroderma and Raynaud's phenomenon?

Trying to keep up with regular exercise while living with a chronic illness can feel impossible, but many studies have proven that regular exercise can improve the lives of chronically ill people.

The impact of regular hospital visits or admissions and treatments, can make exercise feel impossible, especially during a flare up. However, even during the worst flare-ups, there will be a window for some form of exercise, whether that's walking up and down the stairs, stretching or a brisk walk around the garden.

Even the smallest amount of exercise can improve your quality of life when living with scleroderma and Raynaud's phenomenon.

It is important to consult your GP before embarking on any new exercise routine.

What are your options for exercise?

Firstly, if you already had a sporting hobby before your diagnosis, do not give up on it! Maintaining your fitness will make living with the condition that much easier.

Research has proven that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can improve vasculature function. A typical HIIT session involves 30 seconds to three minutes of working at 80-90% effort before a recovery period of the same length. A typical session might last twenty minutes.

Physiotherapy can help manage symptoms. Take the time to do a full body scan and consider what areas of your body would benefit most from a little attention. Having a focus when you go into physiotherapy appointments will help you tailor the session for your needs.

For those with tight muscles and joints, stretching helps to keep the body limber. Try slowly introducing a couple of full body stretches first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It will keep your body feeling looser and more relaxed when you start your day and when you finish it.

Many people living with scleroderma, will be accustomed to chronic pain, if you are one of these patients, try introducing a little regular cardio into your week. Cardio is considered the best form of exercise for pain relief, as it releases those good endorphins into your body, and it can be easily regulated so that you do not over do it.

Most importantly, when it comes to exercising with a chronic illness, remember not to over do it when you have a good day. You should only do what you can, not what you want to do. Overdoing it one day will only leave you in more pain the next.

If you are just returning to exercise, build up your routine extremely slowly. Start at the very bottom with just five to ten minutes of cardio and only increase it once that feels easy. Exercise can be a wonderful thing for alleviating symptoms, but it is also very easy to over do it and cause more damage. A great rule of thumb to follow is to try and stop before you start to feel tired.

If you are interested in helping SRUK to create more self-management pieces like this, then please donate today. We rely on the generosity of our community to continue to support patients with scleroderma and Raynaud's.

If you would like information on scleroderma in different parts of your body, please visit: Scleroderma and your body

For more guidance on the best diet for patients with scleroderma, read our article on eating well with scleroderma.