Research shows that exercise helps people better manage, and even reduce, chronic pain.
Committing to regular exercise can be hard. Lots of things can get in the way of fitness: a lack of time or energy, family obligations, or a hectic work schedule. Everyone has their own reasons for not exercising every day.
If you live with chronic pain or other chronic health conditions, staying active can be even more challenging.
In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that over 20 percent of adults in the United States have chronic pain. About 7.5 percent of people reported that chronic pain hindered their daily life, work, and social activities.
Chronic pain is different from acute pain. Acute pain is when there’s tissue damage that repairs itself within 3 to 6 months, like when you skin your knee or break your arm. These injuries will eventually heal, and the pain will resolve.
Chronic pain is difficult to manage because it usually involves nerves, tendons, ligaments, and sometimes an erroneous and confused immune system. This complicates the body’s natural ability to soothe pain.
Chronic pain can weaken the immune system. When your body thinks it’s sick or needs repairs, it sends out messages to release inflammatory cytokines, a type of molecule. These immune soldiers are sent to specific areas in the body via the bloodstream.
With chronic pain and some chronic conditions, these messages can be misfired or inappropriate. Their journey through the bloodstream can cause generalized inflammation in the lymphatic system and other tissues and organs they pass on their way.
Chronic inflammation leaves your body with high levels of inflammatory markers with an often misguided purpose. This state of chronic inflammation, and the havoc it wreaks on the body, can make predicting day-to-day energy, movement, and pain tricky.
Research has proven that exercise helps people with chronic pain. A 2017 study found that people who stay active can manage their pain better, have fewer negative health outcomes, and have a better quality of life. An earlier 2015 study found that movement actually reduces chronic pain compared with a sedentary lifestyle.
Rheumatologists and other medical professionals commonly prescribe daily physical activity as a part of their treatment plans for chronic pain. When the exercises are tailored individually, progress slowly, and account for physical limitations, psychosocial needs, and available resources, they often successfully reduce pain.
Daily activity is important, especially for people with chronic pain. But if chronic pain sometimes makes it hard to exercise, how can you accomplish your daily dose?
Housework counts! Do you break a sweat when you vacuum and mop your floors? What about grocery shopping? You get a lot of steps in pushing a cart. Loading heavy items like bags of potatoes or jugs of water work, too.
These high energy-consuming activities can count toward your daily activity goals. Add them to your schedule and make them fun. Avoid additional exercise on days when you do chores to avoid worsening pain, fatigue, or injuries.
Use what you have. If you have a membership to an up-to-date facility with classes, pools, and lots of support, go there. If you have a weight set at home, use it. Look up workout videos on YouTube or find some inspiration on TikTok. You can even blast some music and dance for short bursts throughout the day.
It’s really not about what equipment you have, but how you move your body.
Walking is the easiest, cheapest, and most accessible way to exercise daily. It’s easily modifiable based on your limitations. You can walk on hills, indoors, in water, and even in place. You can always take a break or sit down when you need to.
Have access to a pool? Swimming, water aerobics, and walking laps in the water are great, low impact activities.
If getting in and out of the water is challenging, seek out city- or federally-funded facilities with available lifts, ramps, handrails, and extra staff on hand to help.
Stretching has many great benefits. It relieves stress, increases circulation, and increases flexibility. Plus it’s completely free! To prevent activity-related injuries, always stretch to cool down after you exercise.
Motivation to stay active can be tough on high pain days, but stretching is always a doable option.
Perform weight-bearing exercises whenever you can. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, weight-bearing and resistance exercises are the best for your bone health.
If you’re new to weight training, don’t use any added weight to start. Any aerobic exercise on your feet counts as a weight-bearing exercise. You can add in elastic bands, free weights, or weight machines, once you’re ready. Start with low weight and low repetitions.
Go slow and listen to your body.
Flare-ups can sometimes be a protective mechanism, and it’s OK to feel some discomfort during your workout.
Rate your pain on a pain scale of your choice before starting and then again about 10 minutes into your workout. If your pain has increased by more than 20 percent, or 2 points on a 10-point scale, slow down and try to modify the activity. If the pain is still elevated, stop the exercise.
It’s also important to evaluate your pain about 2 to 3 hours after the exercise. If your pain is still elevated, you know you need to modify the activity for next time.
When you have chronic pain, the most important thing to remember is to listen to your body. Some days, you may be able to run a half marathon, and other days you won’t be able to get off the couch. Take advantage of the good days and always be kind to yourself on the not-so-good days.
Celebrate your successes, and remember: motion is lotion!
Medically reviewed on June 28, 2022
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