Ticks And Lyme Disease: What Runners Need To Know

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, which is typically carried by black-legged deer ticks.

Symptoms can span the gamut from fevers, malaise, a classic bullseye, and joint pain in the acute phase of the disease, to dizziness, arthritis, tremors, vision changes, cardiovascular complication, and more if the disease progresses and lingers.

It can be challenging to exercise with Lyme disease, and depending on your health, fitness level, and Lyme presentation, you may need to make significant modifications to your workout routine.

To learn more about the benefits, challenges, and tips for exercising with Lyme disease, we spoke with Dr. Sunjya Schweig, MD, a Bay Area Lyme Foundation scientific advisory board member, and the Founder and Director of the California Center for Functional Medicine where he has treated more than 3000 patients.

In this guide, we will look at:

  • Can You Exercise With Lyme Disease?
  • Challenges of Exercising With Lyme Disease
  • Benefits Of Exercising With Lyme Disease
  • Risks Of Exercising With Lyme Disease
  • Expert Tips for Exercising With Lyme Disease

Let’s get started!

A sign that says lyme disease.

Can You Exercise With Lyme Disease?

Due to the myriad of symptoms and the varied nature of the infectious disease, any two patients with Lyme disease will likely have a very different presentation.

For this reason, Dr. Schweig says that the recommendations on the best type, duration, and frequency for exercising with Lyme need to be individualized based on each person’s health picture, capacity, and response. 

“Some people can exercise more heavily and feel good, while others can only tolerate a small amount of exercise without experiencing crashes or decompensations,” he explains.

“Importantly, it is vital that people with Lyme are careful to avoid the ‘push-crash phenomenon,’ where they decompensate with overexertion, as this can cause long-term setbacks.”

In other words, exercise tolerance with Lyme disease is often individualized, but too much physical exertion, such as vigorous or long workouts, can cause you to slide backwards in your recovery process by overtaxing the body.

A person walking on a dock.

Challenges of Exercising With Lyme Disease

Because of the multi-system symptoms characteristic of this disease, it’s common to experience at least some degree of impairment to your ability to exercise when you have it.

“Lyme disease can impair exercise ability for a variety of reasons including joint pain and inflammation, muscle pain, weakness, numbness and tingling, dizziness, balance issues, fatigue, cognitive impairment, mitochondrial impairment (leading to crashes with overexertion), and more,” explains Dr. Schweig. 

Your personal presentation of symptoms will affect the type, intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise you can do, and as your case changes over time, so too may your ability to exercise.

For example, if you experience a lot of joint pain and stiffness, you might not be able to run comfortably due to the joint impact.

However, you might feel even better while swimming than you do at rest because of the buoyancy and pressure (natural compression) from the water.

A person holding their knee in pain.

If you have neurological Lyme disease symptoms such as dizziness and muscle weakness, your tolerance to exercise may be quite low

Stretching or gentle yoga might be all you can handle.

Despite the challenges of exercising with Lyme disease, Dr. Schweig says he almost always encourages people to try and do some type of exercise (at a tolerable level) in order to reap the health benefits of physical activity.

“The level of exercise that’s best for each person may vary based on their pre-Lyme workout regimen and the symptoms of Lyme that they experience,” he shares. “For some people with persistent Lyme disease, the fatigue, joint pain, and other symptoms associated with the disease can be debilitating, putting marathon training clearly out of the question.”

According to Swiss guidelines regarding Lyme disease, low-impact aerobic exercise is recommended for all patients.

But, your exercise routine doesn’t have to start and end with walking, cycling, elliptical machine, or other low-impact cardio.

Strength training has also been shown to be beneficial for people with Lyme. 

For example, a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2015 found significant improvements in subjective ratings of energy levels and the ability to perform resistance exercises in subjects with late-stage Lyme disease. 

A person swimming in open water.

Benefits Of Exercise With Lyme Disease

There are quite a few benefits of exercising for people with this disease. 

In addition to the general health benefits of aerobic exercise, such as improving the health of your heart and lungs, decreasing blood pressure, helping manage weight, and reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases, exercise can have the following positive effects on the symptoms and recovery process in people with Lyme disease:

#1: Activating the Immune System 

In much the same way that exercise increases blood circulation, so too does it increase the circulation of lymph through the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system plays a key role in the immune system, helping circulate immune cells through the body to fend off bacterial infections, parasites, and fungi.

The lymphatic system is passive, which means that in order to get the immune cells circulating, we need to move our muscles. As they contract, they help pump and squeeze the lymph fluid along the lymphatic vessels.

While this is always important for optimal health, it can be especially important for people fighting an infectious disease like Lyme disease.

“This can help as our bodies are fighting infections and getting rid of dead bacteria cells and immune waste, especially when the patient is being treated with antimicrobials/antibiotics,” explains Dr. Schweig. “Thus, I tell even bed-ridden Lyme patients to at least try to stretch and get movement.”

Note that if physical activity is not possible for you for one reason or another, Dr. Schweig recommends getting a massage, or trying to move your legs and arms at least a little to circulate the lymph.

A person holding her head in pain.

#2: Reducing the Severity of Cognitive Functions

Although there aren’t many studies that have investigated the cognitive and mental health benefits of exercise for patients with persistent Lyme disease specifically, getting regular, moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to improve cognition, increase mood-boosting endorphins, and improve mental and physical wellbeing. 

There’s no reason to believe these benefits wouldn’t extend to people with Lyme disease.

Dr. Schweig says Lyme can cause brain fog, problems with mood and sleep, headaches, and other neurological symptoms, so any cognitive improvements from physical activity could be quite helpful.

#3: Reducing Joint Stiffness and Muscle Aches

Moving the body increases circulation, so exercising can reduce the joint stiffness and muscle aches associated with Lyme disease.

#4: Increasing Energy

Physical activity can increase energy levels, which can help combat some of the intense and persistent fatigue commonly experienced with Lyme disease.

A person on an elliptical machine.

Risks Of Exercising With Lyme Disease

Although there are definitely benefits of exercise for people with Lyme disease, there are also certain risks and contraindications.

“The bacterium that causes Lyme disease has been shown to invade joints and organs of people affected by later stages of the disease, and this may weaken these joints and even impact organ function,” warns Dr. Schweig. “For these reasons, the stress of high-impact sports may actually be detrimental for people with Lyme disease.”

Indeed, joint pain from Lyme disease can make it challenging for people with persistent Lyme disease to run.

It is often the case that runners need to reduce their mileage a bit and dial back the intensity while they are being treated for Lyme disease, particularly if joint pain and inflammation causes changes to your running stride.

“Because researchers do not yet fully understand all the mechanisms behind how the bacterium impacts joints, hearts, brains and other parts of the body, it’s important that you do what feels right for you,” advises Dr. Schweig.

A person smiling after exercising.

Expert Tips for Exercising With Lyme Disease 

Dr. Schweig shared some tips for exercising with Lyme disease to improve comfort and effectiveness while reducing the potential drawbacks and challenges:

  • Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet rich in fresh vegetables, lean proteins, seeds, and nuts, and free from excessive sugars, salt, alcohol and processed fats.
  • Focus on getting enough quality sleep, as this can reduce inflammation in the body and improve immune function.
  • Consider dietary supplements for Lyme disease, such as collagen, vitamin C, Magnesium, B vitamins, amino acids, and adaptogenic herbs.

If you are going to try and run a marathon with Lyme disease or take on other serious exercise training programs, you should speak with your physician and consider if this type of rigorous training is really the right stress to be putting on your body while battling Lyme disease.

Though running with Lyme disease is certainly possible for many patients, and even completing a marathon isn’t unilaterally out of the question, it’s important to put your recovery from the illness first on your priority list and your fitness goals second

Use exercise to expedite healing and mitigate symptoms; doing too much can have the opposite effect.

“The bottom line is that you need to listen to your body and have clear and honest communication with your physicians and care team so that you can safely achieve your personal goals while protecting your health,” says Dr. Schweig.

Looking for some healthy diet ideas to go along with your fitness program? Check out our healthy diets guide.

A person taking a step.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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