South Africa: Leading by example: patients and physicians run side-by-side

…… raise awareness of role of exercise in treatment of autoimmune diseases – Monday, 29 October 2012: Over 100 patients, physicians, practice nurses and their families and friends took part in the Cape Town ‘Gun Run’ on Sunday, 14 October on behalf of the ‘Join the Fight against Autoimmune diseases’ campaign and to highlight the important role exercise can play in slowing the progression of these debilitating conditions.

One of Cape Town’s most popular running events, the ‘Gun Run’ is open to runners of all ages and abilities. The event consists of several races, from a 21 kilometre half marathon to a 5 kilometre fun run, which wind through the city along various routes, including along the Mouille Point promenade and around Green Point, to finish at Rocklands Beach in Sea Point.

Many members of the ‘Join the Fight’ team were once severely disabled and even wheelchair or bed- bound and never dreamt they would be able to participate in an event like the ‘Gun Run’. Aside from the fantastic new treatments that made their participation a possibility, many of the runners have had to overcome tremendous obstacles to be part of the ‘Join the Fight’ team. Drawn from every walk of life, the participants were united by their desire to highlight these physically debilitating, even crippling, ailments and this important cause.

“It is an extremely important campaign,” confirms Dr Braam Viljoen, a physician with a special interest in rheumatology based at the Tygerberg Hospital and one of the ‘Join the Fight’ runners. “A lot of good work has been done to raise awareness of conditions like HIV and cardiac disease, but less has been done for autoimmune disease patients, even though they often experience the same daily challenges and severe deterioration in quality of life.”

As well as raising awareness of autoimmune diseases, the campaign emphasises the numerous benefits of exercise for people suffering from an Autoimmune disease. “The benefits vary from condition to condition, obviously,” observes Dr Viljoen, “but, in the case of the inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, we know that exercise reduces joint stiffness and soreness directly. Exercise also improves the general conditioning of the body and helps to strengthen muscles, which, in turn, helps protect the joints. Lastly, there is the cardiovascular health of the patient to consider. We know that chronic inflammation is a risk factor for heart disease and arteriosclerosis, which makes it vital for patients to look after their hearts and keep them healthy.”

Dr Viljoen is quick to point out that the benefits of exercise are not just physical, however. “Exercising and playing sports improves your mental and psychological wellbeing as well,” he confirms, “and this should not be underestimated. As physicians, we are sometimes guilty of focusing on the hard physical evidence to the extent that we forget the person. Being fit, feeling healthy, getting outside and interacting socially with other people is also essential because it helps fight the fatigue, isolation and depression that is often a serious part of the challenge of living with one of these conditions.”

There are over 80 autoimmune diseases and, while many of them are rare, they collectively affect a large number of people around the world, including here in South Africa. The wide range of AIs makes it hard to establish exactly how many people are affected, but one of the largest international studies, which assessed 24 of the 80 diseases in the US, estimated that it is between five and eight per cent of the population1. While there are no reliable figures for South Africa, if the pattern of prevalence matches that found by the US study, over 2 million South Africans could be currently living with one or more of these crippling diseases.

If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, but would like to access the benefits of exercising, Dr Viljoen recommends starting with low-impact, aerobic exercises. “Consider aerobic exercise routines that will improve your cardiovascular health,” he suggests, “and non-impact or non-weight-bearing exercises that will strengthen the muscles that support your joints, such as running, cycling and swimming.”

He also counsels starting off gently and slowly building up the duration and intensity of your routine. “Start slow and go slow,” he cautions. “Don’t jump straight in, rather start with walking than running and slowly increase the distance you cover. You should be 100 percent safe provided you start a graded programme and slowly build up within reasonable limits, but it is always a good idea to consult your physiotherapist or doctor before you start a new exercise plan.”

Dr Viljoen completed the ‘Gun Run’ on behalf of the ‘Join the Fight’ campaign because he believes in leading by example. “Exercise is essential for healthy living,” he explains, “whether you have a chronic disease or not and, no matter what disease you suffer from, your doctor and medication alone cannot keep you healthy and happy. Changing your lifestyle and exercising regularly will improve your quality of life.”

The ‘Join the Fight against Autoimmune diseases’ campaign is a global initiative by Abbott Laboratories that seeks to help raise awareness of autoimmune diseases and to unite and support sufferers. For more information about the campaign and how you can get involved contact Dean Krawitz on: 011 326 3428 or 083 768 1433 or visit our Facebook page:!/JoinTheFightAgainstAutoimmuneDiseases.


1. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee (ADCC). Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research. Report to Congress. March 2005