January 23, 2017

How Regular Exercise Can Prevent Kidney Disease

Have you ever started vacuuming the carpet only to realize that the vacuum cleaner wasn’t picking up anything? Then you noticed that the motor is laboring more intensely than usual. Chances are the filter was clogged and the bag or reservoir was full.

Your kidneys perform a similar, but infinitely more complex and important job in your body. Each kidney contains about a million filtering components called nephrons. By means of the nephrons, your kidneys filter the waste materials out of your blood eliminating them from the body. Your kidneys help keep the electrolytes stable, and produce important hormones that regulate blood pressure, make red blood cells and keep your bones strong.[1]

regular exercise prevents kidney disease
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Signs and Symptoms of Kidney Disease

Now, imagine what happens if your kidneys are no longer functioning properly. Waste materials continue to circulate in the bloodstream causing other health problems throughout the body. Your electrolytes get off kilter, your blood pressure rises, and your hormones are out of balance. Like that clogged vacuum cleaner, your heart is working harder, but accomplishing less. In short, your body ceases to work properly. This situation describes Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD).[2]

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 10% of adults in the US may have CKD.[3] Some of the signs and symptoms of CKD include:[4]

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Sleep issues
  • Changes in urine output
  • Decreased mental sharpness
  • Muscle twitches and cramps
  • Hiccups
  • Swelling of feet and ankles
  • Persistent itching
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure

Clearly, those symptoms represent a lifestyle far removed from good health!

Improve Your Kidneys with Exercise

But here’s the great news! Regular exercise can help prevent CKD and improve CKD if you already have it, even if it has progressed to the point that you’re on dialysis.[5] Logically this makes sense since exercise is the enemy of all the risk factors for CKD. But let’s take a closer look at how regular exercise benefits your kidneys:[6], [7]

  • Lowers blood sugar, retarding or preventing neuropathy and kidney failure
  • Improves blood circulation and gets things moving through your kidneys
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Helps you lose weight if overweight
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Strengthens the heart and other muscles
  • Assists in sleeping better
  • Provides more energy to perform normal, everyday functions
  • Sharpens your memory
  • Reduces depression and anxiety
  • Improves quality of life

In one way or another, each of those benefits translates to healthier kidneys and a healthier you.

I’m too tired to get up, how can I exercise?

It’s true, CKD does sap you of energy, so how can you muster the vim and vigor needed to exercise? Clearly, CKD impacts your life in many significant ways, and it used to be that patients with CKD were prescribed bedrest.

However, numerous recent studies have demonstrated the powerful impact that regular exercise can have on the kidneys. These human studies have included healthy individuals, those with CKD but are not yet on dialysis, and those who are already on dialysis.[8], [9], [10], [11]

Depending on your current physical condition and the recommendation of your doctor, starting out slowly and building up with aerobic exercise should increase your energy and stamina. Getting started is that catch-22, because you may not feel like you can. For many this may be an issue of mind over matter.

6 Tips for Getting Started on an Exercise Program

Before you begin, talk to your doctor. Your doctor knows your specific situation and can recommend a course of action for implementing an exercise plan that’s right for you. However, below are some general tips for establishing an exercise routine.

1. Choose an aerobic exercise that you can enjoy and participate in regularly.

Aerobic exercises include: walking, biking, running, hiking, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, swimming, rowing or using equipment that simulates these activities. For many with CKD, walking can be an ideal aerobic exercise, because it’s low impact, you can do it indoors or outside, participate with others, and go at your own pace.[12]

2. Begin with a goal of 30 minutes, 3 times per week.

Many people think that housework or getting up off the coach to go to the refrigerator constitutes a workout! Not so! An exercise becomes aerobic when your heartrate is elevated over an extended period of time (e.g., 30 minutes). This elevated heartrate and oxygen intake is necessary to achieve the desired benefits.

Also, once or twice a week won’t achieve the results you’re looking for. That’s why experts recommend a minimum of 3 times per week, skipping a day or two between workouts.[13] Once your exercise routine is regular, you will probably look forward to your workouts and have more energy to keep them a regular part of your life. It’s not necessary to limit yourself to 30 minutes and 3 times a week, if you wish to exercise longer and more frequently.

3. Exercise with the right equipment.

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes or other clothing to make your activity enjoyable and safe. Before you go out and purchase an expensive piece of exercise equipment, make sure you’ll actually use it and that it works properly.

4. Perform a warm-up before and a cool-down after you exercise.

Gentle stretching before and after exercising is a vital part of a good exercise routine and can prevent cramps or straining a muscle. Stretch the primary muscles you use during that exercise. Never bounce a stretch or force it to the point of pain.

Here are some suggestions for warm-up:

  1. Arms: Stand as straight as possible and reach both hands as high as you can. Stretch them even higher and wiggle all ten fingers as you continue to reach and stretch. Now bring your left hand over onto your right shoulder and cup your left elbow with your right hand. Apply gentle, even pressure to stretch those muscles. Then repeat the same thing with your other arm. Finally, lift your hands over your head and place them crossed with your palms against your back shoulder blades. In that position, stretch your elbows back.
  2. Calves, hamstrings and back: Stand an arm’s length from a solid wall and lean against the wall with your arms. Continue leaning against the wall and take one stride back with both feet and feel your calf and hamstring muscles stretch. Now, still in this position, slowly go up on your toes with each foot, one at a time and repeat a couple times. Finally, step away from the wall, stand up as straight as you can and slowly run your hands down your legs and touch your toes. Hold that position for several seconds and then slowly stand back up.
  3. Thighs: Stand straight and place your left hand on a countertop or wall to help you balance. Now bend your right leg and bring your right foot up behind you until you can grab that ankle with your right hand. Slowly stretch that leg as far as you can by pulling up. Hold that pose for a few seconds and then repeat with your left leg and hand.

5. Stay hydrated while you exercise.

Exercise often prompts us to take in the water we should be drinking and this too helps our kidneys. However, if you are on dialysis, speak with your doctor and stay within the prescribed limits of fluid intake.[14] Those suffering with CKD need to limit their intake of potassium and phosphorus, so be sure to check labels on bottled water or sports drinks to see whether they’ve added these minerals.

6. Use a smart-phone app or activity tracking device.

Many people find these nifty little devices and applications extremely helpful and motivating.

  • Endomondo is a free phone app that utilizes GPS technology to track your mileage, speed, incline and other interesting data.
  • The Fitbit is a very small electronic device that tracks similar information.
  • There are other products and apps on the market as well that help regulate your exercise and energy.

Just like that clogged vacuum that no longer works properly, we need to clean the filter to get it functioning properly again. That’s what physical exercise does for your kidneys. In fact, physical exercise is beneficial to overall health and wellbeing. If you’re not already in a regular exercise program, what’s holding you back? Don’t put it off any longer! Exercise for good health!

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Rob Fischer has been writing professionally for over 35 years. His experience includes writing curricula, study guides, articles, blogs, newsletters, manuals, workbooks, training courses, workshops, and books. Rob has written for numerous churches, for Burlington Northern Railroad, Kaiser Aluminum, and Barton Publishing. He has also trained managers in effective business writing. Rob holds two Master’s degrees, both focused heavily on writing. Rob has published eleven books and serves as an editor and ghostwriter for other authors.


[1] National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse, “The Kidneys and How They Work,” May 21, 2014, http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/yourkidneys/.
[2] CDC, “Protect Your Kidneys,” nd, http://www.cdc.gov/Features/WorldKidneyDay/.
[3] CDC, “National Chronic Kidney Disease Fact Sheet, 2014,” http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/pdf/kidney_factsheet.pdf.
[4] Mayo Clinic, “Chronic Kidney Disease Symptoms,” January 30, 2015, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/kidney-disease/basics/symptoms/con-20026778.
[5] Medical News Today, “Health of Chronic Kidney Disease Patients Improved by Regular Physical Activity,” October 6, 2011, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/235597.php.
[6] DaVita, “Exercise for People with Chronic Kidney Disease,” nd, http://www.davita.com/kidney-disease/overview/living-with-ckd/exercise-for-people-with-chronic-kidney-disease/e/4931.
[7] Medical News Today.
[8] Science Daily.
[9] K.L. Johansen, “Exercise and Chronic Kidney Disease: Current Recommendations,” PubMed, 2005, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15974634.
[10] Kirsten L. Johansen, MD, Patricia Painter, PhD, “Exercise in Individuals with CKD,” Medscape, 2012, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/756303_2.
[11] Nephrology News, “Physical Fitness Level Affects Kidney Function in Type 2 Diabetes Patients,” June 25, 2014, http://www.nephrologynews.com/articles/110295-physical-fitness-level-affects-kidney-function-in-type-2-diabetes-patients.
[12] DaVita, “Walking: An Ideal Exercise for People with Kidney Disease,” nd, http://www.davita.com/kidney-disease/overview/living-with-ckd/walking:-an-ideal-exercise-for-people-with-kidney-disease/e/7573.
[13] DaVita, “Walking: An Ideal Exercise for People with Kidney Disease.”
[14] DaVita, “Walking: An Ideal Exercise for People with Kidney Disease.”

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