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Exercise: Friend or Enemy For Sickle Cell Patients?

Most doctors advise their sickle cell patients to avoid exercise, sports, PE or gym at school for the kids and really any time of physical exertion. Here is an example of where doctors may be very wrong. It is true that over-exertion can bring on a sickle cell crisis. Too much of a good thing is usually bad with anything though, not just exercise. Frequent short bouts of low to medium-intensity exercise is actually really good for preventing crises.

Why would doctors discourage exercise when it can be a huge help? Exercise can dehydrate and deoxygenate the body, bringing on a crisis. But so can a lack of exercise. Being active increases blood circulation, reducing the chances of sickle cell crises. It also improves heart health, reducing the risk for heart attacks and strokes, both of which are very real threats for sickle cell patients.

So how can sicklers exercise safely and effectively? Examples of good exercises would be jogging, weight lifting, bike riding and swimming. The trick is so start slow if you don’t currently exercise and increase your ability gradually. One idea is to start off with a few minutes of fast walking daily and increase your pace up to jogging or even running. Another idea is to do a few minutes of bodyweight resistance exercises like pushups, squats, lunges, calf raises and shadow boxing. Don’t worry if you don’t know what exercises to do – a quick search on youtube.com will give you lots of videos you can follow. As you get accustomed to resistance training, you can do a little more each time.

Of course, make sure to drink plenty of water before, after and even during exercise to prevent dehydration. I take it one step further and drink coconut water, which is nature’s version of Gatorade.

When exercising, stop immediately if you feel any sickle cell pain and if possible have a buddy exercise with you in case you need help. Don’t exercise if you already feel a crisis coming on. Even though you may not be up to exercising every day, don’t be discouraged; exercise on the days you are able to. Get out there and get moving and stay pain-free. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me directly.

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About Dr. Karen Vieira

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