Exercise intolerance: what it is and how to deal with it | Good+Good


wWe’ve always been told that exercise is a good thing, but as with most things said in absolute terms, there are instances where exercise might actually be harmful. One such scenario is when someone suffers from exercise intolerance. It’s something many people have never heard of, but it can affect people who suffer from a variety of conditions.

What is exercise intolerance?

Hallie Zwibel, DO, director of the Center for Sports Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology, explains that exercise intolerance is the inability to engage in physical activity that would be typical for an individual’s age.

Individuals with exercise intolerance can’t build the necessary endurance with exercise, explains Dr. Zwibel. In fact, exercise can cause more discomfort.

Make no mistake: Exercise intolerance is different than simply being out of shape or not motivated to exercise. This is a real condition that can affect your physiology. When someone has an exercise intolerance, their body doesn’t respond to training by getting stronger, however, physical activity can make someone feel worse. Dr. Zwibel says this happens because there is less oxygen-rich blood circulating throughout the body.


A person may be motivated to exercise, but their body can’t satisfy the moment, he says.

What are the symptoms?

The reason some people confuse this condition with a lack of fitness is because the symptoms can mimic those of someone who is not in shape. That is to say, people will feel out of breath and tired when they start exercising. Many also experience muscle cramps and aches. These responses make it difficult for them to sustain exercise in a comfortable or manageable way.

What are the most common causes?

There are various causes behind this condition. Dr. Zwibel says two common ones are heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also be a symptom associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or POTS. Yet some of the causes may not even be identified or fully understood at this point

There has been research linking long-term COVID-19 to exercise intolerance even after symptoms resolve from acute COVID-19, shares Dr. Zwibel. The mechanism for this remains unclear but it could be related to lung or heart problems.

In addition to the lingering consequences of COVID, Dr. Zwibel says a number of other respiratory conditions, such as asthma and COPD, can also cause it.

Oxygen-rich blood is needed throughout the body to maintain all bodily functions. Respiratory conditions can have a negative impact on the blood being oxygenated, he says. Meanwhile, some heart conditions can mean that oxygenated blood doesn’t reach the tissues where it’s needed.

The good news: Fortunately, not everyone who suffers from these types of conditions will necessarily suffer from exercise intolerance. Whether you are affected often depends on the type and severity of your health problem, your level of fitness before you became ill, and how well your condition is managed.


Can you still exercise with exercise intolerance?

It may seem that people who have an exercise intolerance should avoid working out at all costs, but Dr. Zwibel says this is an unnecessary and even counterproductive precaution in most cases.

You Candies AND Should exercise, with a big caveat: Exercise programs need to be tailored to why a person has an exercise intolerance, she says. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. That is why it is vital to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional.

A provider should closely monitor how your body responds to activity and offer targeted levels of physical exertion to follow, says Dr. Zwibel. This has been shown to improve exercise intolerance and help improve quality of life.

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