I’m not one of those girls who pounds away on the treadmill while visualizing evaporating calories and a shrinking waistline. In fact, what motivates me to raise my heart rate has nothing to do with aesthetics. I exercise to give my sick body its best chance at good health.

I am always the sick one. I’ve had chest infection after chest infection. Glandular fever, skin infections, shingles, bronchitis, sinusitis and pneumonia, you name it, I’ve had it – all while being fit, active and eating well.

For a good part of a decade I made constant visits to the doctor, only to be told I was “just one of those people who got sick a lot”, and then be handed yet another course of antibiotics. It wasn’t until an allergy expert sent me for blood tests and then to an immunologist that I discovered the real issue.

It turns out I barely have an immune system. I suffer from Common Variable Immunodeficiency (CVID), which basically means my body doesn’t create enough antibodies to keep me healthy. The CVID means I have a 20% chance of getting an autoimmune disease. I also have mild bronchiectasis as a result of repeated lung infections which, ironically, makes me more prone to lung infections.

Fortunately I am relatively young and healthy, so it’s fairly manageable. Every month I go for a three hour IV infusion of antibodies, and I exercise regularly, as it helps strengthen my immune system and avoid infection and lung issues.

Exercise and the immune system

My doctors recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day, with a good focus on cardio exercise. Cardio is good for my bronchiectasis because it helps to clear and strengthen my lungs (and they need a regular ‘clearance’ to avoid infection). Each week I aim to do a couple of cardio workouts, such as BODYJAM™, RPM™ or LES MILLS GRIT™ Cardio, two strength workouts like BODYPUMP™ or LES MILLS GRIT™ Strength and a BODYBALANCE™ session.

The exercise doesn’t just help my physical health, it also keeps me in good mental shape. I get a real endorphin-hit from exercise, it eases stress, calms anxiety and it helps my self confidence too. According to some research regular exercise can reduce depressive symptoms1 and even be just as effective as antidepressants!

Whenever I’m sick (which is quite often!) I try not to push it too much. Perhaps I might just go for a daily walk, or go to one of my favorite classes but take it a little easier than usual. I’ve found that even just a little bit of exercise can give me the physical and mental boost I need to help kick the illness out.

I love the challenge of high-intensity interval training, but I know that I shouldn’t push my body too hard, and for too long. Activities like marathon running and extreme training are things I definitely need to steer clear of, because intense exercise is actually worse for your immune system than no exercise at all. As Dr Ian Banks, president of the Men’s Health Forum, puts it, “It really is a fascinating paradox… The fitter you are, the worse you can be at fighting off illness. When you exercise very hard you increase the amount of steroids in your body. They are mainly steroid hormones and steroids are a very potent decreaser of the immune responses.”

There is some evidence showing that in the hours following extremely intense exercise, there may be an “open window” during which viruses and bacteria can gain a foothold. As a result there those who push themselves to their absolute limit can face an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections.2

Having learnt that there’s a difference between regular “good” exercise and “too much” exercise, I now realize how critical it is that I get the balance and intensity of exercise just right – and I put a lot of focus into reading my body when I work out. I do all the physical activity I want, but I listen to my body and I know when to rest, or stop and recover.

Since being diagnosed with CVID I’ve joined various support groups. There are some CVID sufferers who, like myself, can still live a pretty normal life and some who are very sick. Regardless of how much they suffer, they all swear by the health benefits of exercise – whether it’s daily visits to the gym or simply short walks in the park when they are up to it. Some believe that it’s exercise that’s helping keeping them alive!

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