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Fighting naturally
People are combating their autoimmune diseases not with medication but exercise

Photos by Dan Bishop

April 2014

Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and lupus often rob people of their independence and compromise their quality of life. But more and more, exercise is being recognized as an effective therapy in helping improve symptoms, and even modifying the progression of certain autoimmune diseases.

Thatís because exercise significantly increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor ó a protein that stimulates the production of neuron stem cells. "BDNF is like Miracle-Gro for the brain," says Dr. Bhupendra Khatri, a neurologist with Wheaton Franciscan.

That marks a dramatic shift in thinking from just a generation ago when medical professionals believed that once stem cells were damaged they never recovered.

Today as evidence points more and more to the healing benefits of physical activity, doctors are prescribing exercise as medicine. "Exercise creates a chain of events in the body and brain that promotes healing," says Khatri.

Team Effort

For people with multiple sclerosis, depression is a common side effect ó at least 50 percent living with MS experience the condition at some point during their illness.

But on a bright Wednesday morning in late February, the mood is decidedly upbeat in the fitness room at Wisconsin Metal Parts in Waukesha, where a group of people with MS talk animatedly and exchange barbs as they do floor work and ride stationery bikes.

Colleen Zylka, who joined the exercise group in January, admits she was hesitant to come at first.

"I didnít want to be around negative people who complained," says the Waukesha resident who was diagnosed with MS in 2012.

When she finally gave the group a try, Zylka found the atmosphere to be anything but gloomy. "All people do here is encourage each other and push each other," she says. "Thereís lots of laughing and joking."

While itís no secret that exercise can improve peopleís mood and general well-being, thereís growing evidence that working out can improve ó or at least maintain ó cognitive function in people with MS.

"We believe exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect," says Khatri. Thatís an important benefit for people with MS, as inflammation breaks down the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects the nerves.

Dan Erschen knows firsthand about the healing benefits of exercise. Diagnosed with MS at the age of 39 after a severe attack from the disease left him unable to walk, Erschen turned to exercise at the suggestion of a family member. At first, he could only do the elliptical for five minutes, but after a few months he was up to 30 minutes. Within three years, he was running marathons, and now at 52, Erschen has competed in three Ironman triathlons.

Erschenís experience motivated him to open his companyís fitness room two mornings a week to people with MS. In less than a year, the group has grown to 18 ó all by word of mouth.

The exercise sessions are offered for free. For Erschen, seeing peopleís attitudes change as they become stronger and more confident is more than enough payment. "They go from saying ĎI canít do thatí to ĎIím going to do that,í" he says.

That means a lot to Shannon Guetzke and Lynn Groth. The friends, who met in an MS support group, have been attending Erschenís exercise group since late December. "The volunteers are amazing," says Guetzke. "Youíd have to hire a personal trainer to get this kind of attention at a gym."

Groth agrees. "The group has been a godsend," she says. "It gives us a reason to get up and get moving."

According to Dr. Chrstopher Cronsell, a psychiatrist with Wheaton Franciscan, positive thinkers generally do better and are able to combat disease more effectively. "Thereís good evidence that exercise can change attitudes," Cronsell says.

Khatri says exercising can even make a difference in patients who are wheelchair-bound or bedridden. Being confined to a wheelchair certainly hasnít stopped John Haupt. Aided by walking poles and a volunteer, the Wauwatosa resident can often be found doing laps around the shop floor adjacent to Wisconsin Metal Partsí fitness room. "This is a community," he says of the exercise group. "We get motivation from each other. Just being here lifts your spirit."

Arthritis Aqua Therapy

Although exercise is proving to be an effective therapy for some autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis, other conditions like arthritis, which affects peopleís joints, make physical activity painful. But many people suffering with arthritis are finding relief in the pool. "Water is an ideal environment for relieving arthritis pain and stiffness," says Jeanette Prince-Hestetune, aquatics director for the Tri-County YMCA in Menomonee Falls.

The YMCA teamed with the Arthritis Foundation to develop a warm-water exercise program to help people with arthritis keep their joints moving and reduce pain. Classes are offered at YMCA facilities throughout the metropolitan Milwaukee area. "The program enables people with arthritis to exercise without putting excess strain on their joints and muscles," Prince-Hestetune says.

According to Prince-Hestetune, warm water is key in helping relieve the pain and stiffness caused by arthritis. During classes, the pool is kept between 90 and 92 degrees. "The warm water helps improve flexibility and range of motion," she says.

Additionally, the waterís buoyancy provides gentle resistance to build muscle strength and support joints for easier movement.

Although the Arthritis Foundation YMCA Aquatic Program takes place in the pool, people donít need to know how to swim to participate. Prince-Hestetune says the classes are suitable for any fitness level and theyíre led by certified instructors.

The YMCA also offers an AFYAP Plus class, which includes 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.

"Itís more of a challenge," she says.

Along with the physical benefits associated with aquatic exercise, thereís the added benefit of social interaction, which can help decrease feelings of depression and isolation among participants. "The classes definitely help build confidence and self-esteem," Prince-Hestetune says.

óRebecca Konya



This story ran in the April 2014 issue of: