By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
It’s no doubt that HIV/AIDS has had a huge impact on the LGBTI community; it has affected many people within our community. Today over 36.7 million people are living with HIV/AIDS and there have been many advancements in educational, prevention and treatment services offered that have turned the disease from a death sentence to on the verge of a cure.
Living a healthy lifestyle and exercising regularly can have many benefits for people who live with HIV/AIDS. Greg Louganis for example was diagnosed with HIV shortly before the 1988 Olympics, he stated in his book that he was afraid he would be too sick to compete and almost called it quits. However the fact that he was training regularly and staying consistent with a healthy diet not only helped to keep the virus at bay but to keep his immune system strong, To the point he was able to fight off other infections such as the flu a lot quicker than his HIV negative teammates. (Louganis. G Breaking the Surface 1996).
HIV/AIDS is a virus that targets the immune system; it essentially attacks and breaks down the immune system making it much weaker and unable to fight off other infections. Many of the illness and death attributed to HIV/AIDS actually come from other viruses and infections such as pneumonia and shingles. The immune system at that point is so weak from the HIV/AIDS virus that it is very vulnerable and unable to amount a proper defense, letting the infection take over the body.
Two conditions associated with HIV/AIDS are lipodystrophy and muscular atrophy. Lipodystrophy is a change in how the body stores, processes and utilizes fat. It can lead to rapid and unhealthy weight loss or weight gain and significantly manipulating your fat stores at a dangerous level. This is unhealthy as it can affect your intake of fat-soluble vitamins as well as lead to an increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, stroke and diabetes. The specific cause is unknown but it is believed that HIV/AIDS combined with other factors such as age, race and biological play a significant role.
Muscular atrophy is the wasting away of muscle, both in strength and the muscle tissue itself becomes more and more diminished. This leads to reduced strength and functionality, it also significantly increases your risk of injury ranging from fractures on the bone, decreased bone strength, joint issues, inflammation of tendons and ligaments as well can increase risk of infection.
Both of these conditions can lead to exhaustion, fatigue, and inability to perform regular tasks, mental conditions including depression, anxiety, increased stress and body image issues.
Numerous studies examine the effectiveness of exercise for people living with HIV/AIDS show that exercise is not only safe, but recommended for people living with HIV/AIDS (Grace, J. M., Semple, S. J., & Combrink, S. 2015; Jaggers, J. R., & Hand, G. A. 2014; Nixon S, O'Brien K, Glazier RH, Wilkins AL. 2001).
Exercise has consistently shown to help control and maintain healthy body composition with the efficient processing and storage of fat and fat-soluble vitamins. By maintaining a constant, healthy percentage of body fat you immediately reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other metabolic, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Partaking in a consistent exercise program as suitable to your condition can be beneficial in helping your body maintain a regular and healthy function. This is best accomplished by partaking in aerobic or cardio-based exercise programs. Depending on what your goals are these may include long duration exercise at a moderate intensity (walking, jogging, swimming, cycling) or higher intensity shorter duration exercises (High intensity interval training, sprinting). Both types have been shown to reduce fat and help maintain a healthy body fat percentage.
Exercise also helps you strengthen and maintain a strong immune system, through the constant engagement of your body’s system it can help fight off bacterial and viral infections.
Resistance training can have a significant effect on reducing and even reversing muscular atrophy. By keeping the muscles constantly engaged and working, you are strengthening the muscles; they become stronger, bigger and more efficient. Not only that but weight bearing exercises have been shown to increase bone density, making your bones stronger and better able to hold the weight. This helps maintain strong joints and bones to allow you to function and perform at a higher level as well maintain your physical health and quality of life for a much longer period of time. It also significantly reduces your risk or injury as you will better be able to recover and not be harmed as easily during impact. Resistance training does not only include weight lifting but body weight exercises, resistance bands and just about anything you can come up with that involves an increased weight load.
Core training, speed, agility, and flexibility training are also very important, as they will improve your balance, coordination and flexibility. Helping your body to become more functional, better able to hold yourself in unstable environments as well as always keep your mind sharp and focused to better able to respond at the task at hand. Check out different programs including yoga, Pilates and Zumba are great ways to keep your core and mind engaged.
Exercise in all forms essentially challenges and pushes the body, it keeps you engaged and constantly changing the stimulation placed upon the muscles, bones, nervous system and mind. You know the feeling of being sore after a challenging workout? Your body is essentially broken down and ripped apart on the inside from the exercise at hand, however it regenerates and rebuilds itself to be stronger and more efficient, able to better handle the task at hand. This is why it’s important to keep changing your workout and pushing yourself to the next level, it’s also why what may seemed hard last week is suddenly much easier this week. It essentially has the same effect on the immune system, it helps to break it down and rebuild it to be stronger and more efficient in handling the combat of infectious diseases and viruses.
Exercise also has a wide variety of mental and psychological benefits. Living with HIV/AIDS can be just as hard on the mind as it is on the body. The two are connected to each other and maintaining a healthy mind is just as important as maintain a healthy body. Depression, self esteem and confidence issues as well as stress and eating disorders are all common issues people have, not only that but also the medications and treatments often have many side effects that play host to many of these conditions. Elle Woods from Legally Blonde said it best, “Exercises releases endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Indeed this is true; exercise will lead to the release of serotonin and dopamine, which are the two neurotransmitters in the body responsible for pleasure. These neurotransmitters can affect everything from mood, to overall physical health and quality of life. Helping you feel stronger, happier and more fulfilled.
Depending on the stage of the disease, medications, overall physical health and such; it is important to consult your physician prior to engaging in any exercise program. Always make sure to start at a lower, lighter level of exercise and build up from there. It is possible to exercise too much and that can have negative and drastic effects on your body and might even impact your treatment program. Again always talk to your physician, you know your body best and make sure you are always careful in your training program, ensure you are exercising properly, safely and at a level that is appropriate to your level of physical fitness and your goals.
Check out and participate in these fitness and sports events supporting HIV/AIDS Research!
By Dirk Smith
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.