Exercise for Kidneys: Getting Started for Healthy Kidneys

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Part of healthy living includes exercising. This includes exercise for kidneys and kidney issues. Safe exercising can promote healthy kidneys, even for those with kidney disease. In this article, we’re going to cover some of the types of exercise and how they can work for those with kidney disease. 

Please consult with your physician before starting any new exercise program.

Does Exercise Help If I Have Kidney Disease?

Exercise is helpful in many ways for the average person. Many people see some healthy weight loss or body composition changes. 

Some changes may include losing fat, gaining muscle or preventing muscle loss, and gaining bone strength. 

Those with blood sugar control issues have seen improvements in insulin levels and tighter blood sugar control. 

Exercise can also help with mental health and prevent depression or anxiety.

There are also kidney-specific benefits to exercise. 

Does Exercise Help Kidney Function?

Exercise alone has not been conclusively shown to improve kidney function in studies

However, when pairing exercise with a healthy diet and lifestyle, it is an important factor to having a better quality of life.

We also know that kidney disease often comes with other health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and cardiovascular disease. 

By creating a consistent exercise routine, one can see lower blood pressures, lower cholesterol, more muscle function, and better sleep. 

One study found that those with hypertension and chronic kidney disease experienced improvements in their C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker), improved fasting blood glucose, and an increase in their ability to move around.

There is an association between mental decline and kidney disease. Cognitive function has been shown to improve with exercise. Adding exercise to our routine can lead to a better quality of life as we get older. 

Exercising for kidney health. Benefits include; helping with healthy weight, improve sleep, improve muscle function, stronger bones, reduce inflammation, better balance, better cholesterol and triglyceride levels, stronger muscles, and improve blood pressure.

Can Exercise Damage Kidneys?

There is such a thing as exercising too much. Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle. This can happen with intense exercises done repetitively. 

Rhabdomyolysis – or rhabdo for short – can lead to kidney damage of up to 40% that may or may not be permanent. 

Rhabdomyolysis-induced acute kidney injury needs to be medically addressed immediately- sometimes with temporary dialysis. 

For the record, this would be considered a severe case and is not commonly seen.

When it comes to exercise for kidneys, slow and steady can win the race.

Exercise May Help with Anxiety and Depression for CKD Patients

A meta-analysis showed that exercise was found to be helpful in reducing the mental health issues of anxiety and depression. 

The review specifically looked at studies on exercise for those with kidney disease.

It was concluded that exercise may help with improving depression and anxiety symptoms in CKD patients.

Can You Exercise To Pass A Kidney Stone?

Exercising alone will not help with kidney stones. There’s no association between physical activity and kidney stones.

However, hydration is important with both exercise and kidney stone prevention. This can be due to faster dehydration from sweating and heavy breathing, allowing calcium oxalate and uric acid build-up.

If someone has kidney stones and wants to exercise, it’s very important to hydrate very well. 

How Should I Start Exercising If I Have Kidney Disease?

As mentioned earlier, it’s important to discuss any activity plans with your doctor or kidney specialist

Your doctor will help guide you to an exercise program that is both helpful and safe.

Exercise for Dialysis Patients

Exercise is still an important part of a healthy lifestyle for those on dialysis. The type of exercise, frequency, and intensity may be modified based on individual tolerance and physician approval.

The National Kidney Foundation’s Kidney Disease Outcomes Quality Initiative (KDOQI) has recommended: “all dialysis patients should be counseled and regularly encouraged by nephrology and dialysis staff to increase their level of physical activity.”

Furthermore, it’s recommended that the goal for activity is moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes most, if not all, days per week.

All dialysis patients should be speaking with their own healthcare team about the best exercise routine for their own health.

Types of Exercise For Kidneys

There are so many different types of exercise, and it’s great to try them all and see what one enjoys the most. 

The important thing about exercise for kidneys is to find what a person truly enjoys so they see it as a benefit and not a punishment.

Aerobic Exercises 

Aerobic exercises include activities like: 

  • Walking
  • Running/Jogging
  • Biking/Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Dancing
  • Elliptical training
  • Boxing
  • Gardening
  • Swimming
  • Jumping rope
  • Cardio classes like Zumba or Jazzercise

Think of aerobic as heart-pumping exercises that makes one breathe more. Aerobic exercises are great to improve blood pressure and cardiovascular health.

Aerobic exercises can be some of the easiest types of physical activity to start with. Many have little to no equipment and don’t require a gym membership.

Is Walking Good For Kidneys?

Walking is a low- to moderate exercise and is entirely customizable. One can go as far and as long as they’d like. They can add hills or stairs if they want, or stick to a flat trail. One will still get benefits from whatever walking they’re able to safely do.

Walking is one of the best things one can do for their kidney health that isn’t diet-related.

One study focused on a walking program for those with stage 4 and 5 chronic kidney disease. 

They found that people who completed just 1 month of an exercise routine had benefits of improved cardiovascular health and no increase in their blood pressure medications. 

This was compared to the other group that did not exercise. They ended up with more blood pressure meds.

The National Kidney Foundation hosts kidney walks, both in-person and virtually. Exercise and help spread awareness about CKD. Learn more about kidney walk events here.

What about High-Intensity Exercise?

Also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), high-intensity exercise is when a person exercises hard for a short period of time, takes a break, and then exercises again. 

A study performed on a group of people with kidney disease found that high-intensity exercise could be safely done twice a week. 

Benefits seen in this group included better oxygen capacity of their lungs. More oxygen is good for us and our kidneys.

High-intensity (HIIT) exercises generally mean people strive for about 80-90% of their maximum heart rate. 

To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Then take the percentage of that number for your exercise heart rate.

For example, a 50-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 170. For HIIT exercises, their heart rate goal would be around 136 – 153.

Because of the high intensity, it is extremely important to first discuss this exercise plan with your healthcare provider. 

There can be medical reasons that would prevent someone from including HIIT in their workout routine.

Weight Lifting Exercise for Kidneys

Even though we think of “lifting weights,” one doesn’t have to actually use weights. Think of weight lifting exercises such as: 

  • Squats
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Lunges
  • Bicep Curls
  • Crunches
  • Plank

Weight lifting can be a beneficial exercise for kidneys. It doesn’t need to be done all the time for the benefits, either.

While a person can use weights like dumbbells and barbells, don’t forget about other exercise equipment like resistance bands. 

Even water bottles or cans from the pantry can serve as excellent one- to three-pound weights.

Weight lifting can be a good exercise for kidneys, but it’s important to discuss first with your doctor to get medically cleared. 

This is especially important for those on dialysis, where certain exercises may be limited to prevent strain on dialysis access.

Balance Exercises

The risk of falling increases as we get older. Complications from falls can escalate quickly and can lead to serious health issues and hospitalizations.

Practicing balancing exercises is a great way to get the physical activity that improves health and safety. 

Check out this article from Johns Hopkins Medicine that includes balance exercises and videos. 

Yoga and Stretching

Our muscles want to stretch. Doesn’t that first top-to-bottom stretch in the morning after waking feel so good? 

A simple way to start increasing physical activity is to schedule 5-10 minutes in the morning and before bed of simple stretches.

Here’s a quick video that walks through some gentle stretches.

Don’t forget stretch-like exercises like yoga and pilates, which focus on body weight for movement but also to elongate the muscles.

Types of exercise for kidneys: walking, running/jogging, swimming, weight lifting, yoga, cycling, stretching, gardening, dancing.

How Long Should I Exercise?

Start small with each new exercise routine. Even a 5-minute workout is a great place to start. 

Exercise can always be gradually increased as the body becomes stronger and more capable.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends aiming for 30 minutes of moderate exercise for 5 days of the week. 

That can feel like an ambitious goal when starting out. Remember that it’s okay to start where it’s comfortable and practice small changes. 

Consistency is what is most important.

How Often Should I Exercise?

As mentioned, it’s important to start small and grow from there. I would not recommend starting with 5 times a week if someone doesn’t exercise at all. 

Once or twice a week with short timeframes is more realistic for a beginner. Remember, this is something to start for a lifetime.

Achieving three exercise sessions a week can be beneficial.

The Talk Test

Try using the “talk test.” The “talk test” is how you can more easily determine the intensity of your exercise. To do the talk test, simply try to talk while exercising.

If you can talk in full sentences, you’re likely doing a moderate activity.

Can you sing while exercising? If so, you’re likely doing a light activity.

Maybe you can’t string together more than a couple of words at a time. That is a sign you’re likely doing some heavy or intense activity.

While you should always clear any exercise program with your doctor before starting, it is especially important you discuss any plans to do high-intensity exercise with your doctor first.

When Should I Exercise?

Exercise regularly after getting permission from your doctor. As far as the time of day, do whatever is best for you and your schedule.

Don’t try to plan your routine exercise for a time that will be difficult for you to maintain.

If someone isn’t an early riser, they shouldn’t start with 5 am workouts. Moving the alarm clock gradually forward to include exercise in the morning is great. But don’t get overwhelmed or frustrated.

When Should I Not Exercise?

Do not exercise if your doctor has told you to not exercise.

Listen to your body – it will help tell you what you need, whether that’s to move or to rest.

Whenever you have any doubts about exercising, talk with your doctor first.

How Do I Know If I Should Stop Exercising?

Sometimes we get carried away with exercising. Pay attention to your body while you exercise and stop if you notice symptoms such as;

  • Feeling very tired
  • Short of breath
  • Sick or nauseous
  • Cramping
  • Light-headed or dizzy
  • Chest pain or irregular heartbeats

If you have to stop for any reason, consult with your doctor before starting exercising in the future.

A Client Success Story

I worked with a client on becoming a morning exerciser by having her start with setting an alarm for the same time every day. It was a realistic time for her to feel good about getting out of bed, but not angry at the alarm clock. 

We started adding in small amounts of exercise she enjoyed when she was getting up at a consistent time.

She started setting her alarm for 8 am. She would set 15 minutes in the morning to do some exercises she enjoyed (yoga). 

A couple of weeks later, she pushed her alarm clock up to 7:45 am and then bumped up her exercise to 20 minutes. Another few weeks later, 7:30 am, and so on.

Once we finished, she was getting up at 7 am and fitting in 30 minutes of exercise plus a healthy breakfast – all before she started work. 

She wasn’t stressed about her morning routine. She had found one that worked for her and she enjoyed it. The enjoyment part is a big factor in her success.

Summary

Exercising is so important for our health – for our bodies, our mood, and our health. 

More importantly, exercise for kidneys can be beneficial in lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and inflammation.

There are different types of exercise; aerobic, weight lifting, balance, yoga, even stretching. Because there are so many different types of exercise, finding one that suits you best is important.

Pick an activity that you enjoy doing and that feels good to you. Set a time in your day to do your exercise so it becomes a part of your routine. Find a friend, family member, even your pet to exercise with for more enjoyment of your activity. 

Get moving so you can feel good about your efforts in keeping your kidneys healthy and happy.

And please consult with your physician before starting any new exercise program.

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6 thoughts on “Exercise for Kidneys: Getting Started for Healthy Kidneys”

  1. Thank you for the information. I was not sure about lifting weights and how it would effect my kidneys. Plus now I have the option to do some walking too.

    1. Jen Hernandez RDN, CSR, LDN

      I have some clients do weight lifting, it’s very beneficial! Just know that heavy or excessive weight lifting can increase your creatinine levels. My fave exercise is walking. 🙂

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