Exercise Helps Manage Fibromyalgia: Here’s How To Get Started
If you have fibromyalgia and it hurts, exercising is probably the last thing you want to do. But experts say it’s actually one of the most effective strategies you can try to help manage this chronic pain.
Yet, many people with fibromyalgia already struggle with their regular daily activities. Adding extra exercise can seem overwhelming. And pain and exhaustion can make it difficult to start and stick to regular workouts.
It’s natural to fear that any exercise will make your pain worse and leave you feeling devastated. But be aware that adding more physical activity to your day can actually decrease your pain, improve your sleep, and give you more energy.
So how can a worried person with fibromyalgia get started? You may want to talk to your doctor about your current medical treatment when you plan to start exercising. Questions to consider: Do I need to take my medications at different times of the day? What can I do before or immediately after exercising to minimize the symptoms?
When you are ready to begin an exercise program, start slowly. Taking a small, step-by-step approach to starting an exercise plan can help. Add activity in small doses, every day if you can. Then build your activity slowly over time.
For example, if you walked for 10 minutes today, try 11 minutes – a 10% increase – a week later. This approach is particularly important to avoid a phenomenon called post-exercise discomfort (PEM). Many people with fibromyalgia have this problem. When they feel less pain or more energy, they may try to accomplish things that they were unable to do because of the symptoms. Often, they don’t realize that they are doing too much at once. They may end up feeling so exhausted that it takes days or more to recover. This is PEM, best known to people with fibromyalgia as an “accident”. A gradual approach to exercise can help prevent it.
Choose activities carefully
In addition to gradually increasing movement over time, also try to choose activities that don’t put too much strain on your body. Experts generally recommend any low-impact aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming, or biking. Your doctor may advise you to work with a physical therapist on exercises aimed specifically at reducing pain and stiffness and improving function. This can include stretching and strengthening as well as aerobic exercise.
Another form of exercise that has shown promise for people with fibromyalgia is tai chi. This ancient Chinese practice was born as a form of self-defense. It involves slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing exercises.
A 2018 BMJ study looked at 226 adults with fibromyalgia. The researchers assigned 151 group members to practice tai chi once or twice a week for 12 or 24 weeks. The other 75 study participants did moderate-intensity aerobic exercise twice a week for six months. Researchers found that tai chi was more effective in relieving symptoms of fibromyalgia than aerobic exercise.
Some limited evidence also suggests that yoga may also help improve symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain, fatigue, and mood issues.
Whatever activity you choose, remember to be patient with yourself. Short-term setbacks can happen, but being patient and working to overcome them can help you move forward in the long term.
(Kelly Bilodeau is editor-in-chief of Harvard Women’s Health Watch.)