By John Williams and Sam Fraser the YMCA’s Positive Health Coordinator
HIV drugs have transformed our lives and today positive people face different challenges. Issues such as: stigma and discrimination, drug side effects, depression, lack of self-esteem and social isolation or simply trying to attaining a good work/life balance are common concerns.
So could exercising help us to manage these issues more effectively?
Some positive people have started to wake up to the idea that exercise might help redress the imbalance often felt after a HIV diagnosis. Many are using exercise as a form of rehabilitation after health ‘set backs’ or ‘late diagnosis’.
Whether your aim is to gain or lose weight or simply tone up, the benefits can extend deeper than the obvious physical improvements.
Sam Fraser of the YMCA’s Positive Health says: “It’s a huge reward to see a client who has never set foot in a gym to go on and achieve great results. Over time they find that exercise can have a positive impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.
‘as a result they start to rebuild their health with exercise and the gym soon becomes an important part of their lifestyle… the majority of people will see improvements in their self-esteem, confidence, sleep patterns and a reduction in stress levels,” She added
Feben, a member of Positive Health said: “Before I started the gym I really believed I was close to death. I was suffering from depression and had lost hope. I also had an eating disorder and an abnormal body shape.
‘There has been a tremendous change in my life since I started to exercise: morally, mentally and physically. I really enjoy cardio exercises like skipping, cardio kick, samba and swimming. This has helped me to lose a lot of weight. I am happy and now have a positive outlook to life. My confidence is back and skin is glowing again. I would recommend exercise anyone.”
Studies have show that regular exercise can slow down the progression of HIV and increase blood counts. Exercise can also increase endorphins which are the body’s natural feel good chemicals boosting your mood.
Exercising isn’t just about lifting weights in the gym! It can also be a fun activity incorporating many disciplines such as: tai chi, yoga, swimming or even salsa! However it is vital to find something you enjoy doing so you remain motivated and enthusiastic.
If you are new to exercise you should start slowly and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workout. Set yourself ‘SMART goals i.e. those that are: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
Ask yourself: what do you want to achieve? When do you want to achieve these goals by?
If you are experiencing side effects from medication or starting treatment, this can be managed, so don’t be put off. All these factors play a part in the design of your exercise programme and remember… your body will need time to adjust to the new demands being placed on it.
When you are HIV-positive, your body needs extra calories to help keep your immune system strong. Make sure your diet is balanced and that you are eating your ‘five a day’.
Breakfast is the most important meal-of-the-day so don’t be tempted to skip it. Try to avoid sugary snacks: find some tasty healthy alternatives like health bars, fruit and nuts or even dark chocolate.
Manage those side effects…
Including a variety of exercises such as resistance, cardiovascular and flexibility into your exercise programme can help you to lower blood pressure and minimise some of the long-term side effects of medication such as reducing cholesterol and triglycerides.
A serious side effect of some HIV drugs is fat loss; affecting the face, buttocks arms and legs and fat gain which affects the shoulders, neck, stomach and breasts (in both men and women).
If you are experiencing muscle wasting or weight loss, a programme that includes resistance (weight training) will help build muscle. Exercises could include the leg press, chest press or if at home, you can include activities such as housework, gardening and walking.
If you are experiencing weight gain, aerobic exercises such as fast walking, running, use of a cross-trainer, all combined with resistance will help you lose weight.
TOP TEN TIPS
- Find a gym that is near to your home or work. There are plenty of the new lifestyle gyms around but do not forget that your community gym will often be cheaper and just as good.
- Enlist the help of a qualified instructor; they will show you how to stretch and how to maintain correct form and technique when exercising. Some gyms offer this as part of the start-up package.
- Make sure you wear a comfortable gym kit and a good pair of trainers: they will give you proper support and minimise injury.
- Set realistic goals and objectives with a date in mind for when you want to achieve them.
- Start gradually and build up as your body grows in strength and you grow in confidence. Start with 20 to 30 minute workouts, two to three times a week and gradually increase to 60 minute sessions.
- Break up your exercise programme by including: cardiovascular training (walking, jogging, swimming, bike riding), resistance training (weights/bodyweight), flexibility and balance training (stretching, tai chi, yoga).
- Never train the same muscle two days in a row as the muscles need time to repair and grow.
- Make sure you keep hydrated: before, during and after exercising. Exercise will increase your need for calories so make sure you are eating a healthy balanced diet.
- If motivation or confidence is an issue for you, ask a friend to train with you. But if you are going it alone, do not worry as most gyms have an informal friendly atmosphere.
- Listen to your body and make sure you get adequate rest as overtraining can have a negative effect.
Do I need to consult a doctor before I start to exercise?
If you are in reasonable shape you should be fine. However, if you suffer from any of the following then you should check with your GP or consultant before you start: high blood pressure, heart trouble. family history of early stroke or heart attack, dizzy spells, breathlessness after mild exertion, arthritis or other bone problems, severe muscular, ligament or tendon problems. In any event, a health questionnaire should be completed prior to starting the gym.
Remember, never reveal your HIV status to anyone that you do not trust. You do not have to tell your fitness instructor unless you are perfectly comfortable with it. However, if you are experiencing any side effects from the medication or have any conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, it is advisable to inform the gym instructor.
Finally remember… exercise should be fun, good luck.
Peter from London was diagnosed HIV 15 years ago. He said: “A HIV diagnosis back then came with a degree of uncertainty, so I buried my head in the sand and basically hoped for the best. Five years ago when I was turning 40 I began to wonder, was it the lifestyle choices that I was making, rather than my HIV status that would be the crucial factor in how long I could expect to live for.”
Peter was a social smoker so he gave up for good. He then decided that he would get fit slowly so took up swimming again and within the year had joined a gym. He said: “I had never been in to a gym before so I was understandably apprehensive as I was pretty skinny back then and very self-conscious. Today going to the gym is something that I just do rather than being a big deal. I have put on a stone in weight and for the first time in my life, I like my body! It was the best thing I ever did.”
YMCA Positive Health is a medical referral programme for individuals living with HIV and who attend a number of clinics in the London Area.www.ymca.co.uk
Scroll down this link and you will find a great article by Jon Hanley on improving your Butt www.positivenation.co.uk
A guide to Lipodystrophy by THT www.tht.org.uk
GMFA guide to starting up gay sports group or club www.gmfa.org.uk