The research is in: the best exercise for fibromyalgia is any at all. Here’s why.
Benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia patients
When your tender points are flaring up, your body is aching, and your joints feel like they are rusted shut, movement seems impossible. But doctors agree, and new research supports this fact: exercise for fibromyalgia can be one of the very best things for sufferers.
Besides lower pain levels, benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia patients include:
- More energy
- Improved sleep
- Reduced stress
When you’re not feeling so great, getting the body moving can seem like a near impossible feat. You may wonder how in the world you will move when you feel like a truck just ran over you. But research has shown that exercise is powerfully effective for reducing pain and improving quality of life. The type and intensity of exercise you do will depend on how you’re feeling. Working to overcome the mental resistance around exercise, however, will unlock new pathways to feeling good.
The benefits are so profound that some fibromyalgia experts say exercise is more effective at reducing the condition’s symptoms than medicine. Dr. Winfried Hauser, a German fibromyalgia expert, says:
“There is no magic drug against fibromyalgia, and in my opinion, there will never be…aerobic exercise is the most effective weapon we have.”
At the end of this post, we’ll look at some of the data-backed evidence on why the best exercise for fibromyalgia is any at all, especially one that you love doing.
Before that, let’s talk about how you can find the best exercise for fibromyalgia program for you. Before starting any exercise program, however, talk to your doctor to ensure that it won’t aggravate or exacerbate any existing symptoms.
1. Choose an exercise program you love
One of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing an exercise program is to make sure it’s enjoyable. Many people start working out and then stop because they dread it. Choose something that’s fun, that you look forward to, and that will increase the likelihood that you’ll continue to exercise.
Some of the best exercise for fibromyalgia patients includes:
- Low-intensity hiking
- Water aerobics
- Tai chi
- Low-intensity weight lifting or body weight workouts
However, it’s totally okay to think outside of the box. Maybe you love horseback riding or karate or Zumba. Pick the exercise that fits you that you’ll continue to love doing. Find even more recommendations in our post on the subject.
2. Get your blood pumping
Another important factor of effective exercise is that it gets the blood pumping. So if you take walks, try to walk fast enough to elevate the heart rate.
Of course, if you’re having a bad pain day or are just starting your fitness journey, do what you can. But ideally, the heart rate should rise so your body enjoys all the benefits of aerobic activity.
3. Start slowly
If you’re just starting to work out, begin slowly. Perhaps take a five- or ten-minute walk each night after dinner. Fibromyalgia sufferers can also incorporate gentle yoga styles such as yin yoga, which focuses on deep tissue stretching. Even adding small activities like using the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from the entrance to stores and shops can have a benefit.
All physical activity is good physical activity.
Starting at a gentle pace will also help you feel like fitness is possible, and not a torturous endeavor that leaves you sore or overly tired. It’s better to proceed slowly with constant progress than it is to start strong only to give up a few days or weeks later.
Low-impact activities like walking or bicycling are wonderful for fibromyalgia patients. They protect the joints and help to avoid shaking your tender points, which can aggravate pain.
4. Always listen to your body
Fibromyalgia sufferers should aim for activity every day but also listen to their bodies, modifying their workouts to suit their needs. Exercise should happen when they feel best, whether that is in the morning or the evening, and this time can fluctuate. Fibromyalgia sufferers, particularly, should make sure to warm up their muscles thoroughly before beginning and not rush into training. Patients who were formerly athletic run the risk of injury or setbacks when they try to rush into activities they previously did with ease.
Kim D. Jones, PhD, associate professor at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing in Portland, notes:
“For those who were used to being athletic, we often need to teach them to listen to their body and learn to take it more slowly than they may be used to.”
5. Try out yoga
For many, yoga is the best exercise for fibromyalgia pain they do. This ancient practice combines mindful movement and breath, helping to calm the mind while targeting tightness in muscles and connective tissue. Types of yoga vary from sweat-inducing powerful flows to gentle, restorative practices where you don’t move much at all.
No matter your physical condition, there’s a type of yoga for you to try. One thing to consider is that restorative practices, while still yoga and immensely helpful for reducing stress and pain related to fibromyalgia, are not actually exercise. Exercise implies movement and an elevated heart rate.
While yoga has both extremely slow and fast practices, there’s also a wide middle ground available for people just starting to experiment with the practice. Hatha yoga, which involves holding postures for about five or seven breaths, is wonderful for building strength and increasing flexibility. It’s not a cardio practice, but you will definitely feel the body work and enjoy the benefits of increased energy flow.
6. Cultivate patience
When using exercise for fibromyalgia, the last step for patients is to have patience.
Results will not be immediate, and you may need to push themselves to do something every day, even when you’re really feeling symptoms. Choosing exercises you enjoy may help to motivate you, but you also need to be willing to wait for results.
Lynne Matallana, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association says:
“You definitely need to be patient and work slowly. It may seem like it’s taking forever to reach your goals. But as you gradually increase your movement, you will feel better and notice a decrease in your symptoms. In my experience, exercise is the No. 1 thing to start you on your journey to wellness.”
Why is the best exercise for fibromyalgia any at all?
As you begin to exercise, your heart rate increases and breathing quickens. Meanwhile, the brain also becomes busy, with physical activity sending it the message to amp up production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
Elevating the heart rate also tells the brain to release endorphins, which produce a feel-good, all-natural high. Encouraging the production of these positivity-boosting neurotransmitters is essential for people at risk for depression, which many people with chronic pain are. Maintaining healthy brain chemistry encourages a healthy mindset, which gives a person enough vitality and energy to make other healthy choices, like eating nutritious food.
In addition to promoting feelings of wellbeing, exercise also neutralizes the harsh effects of stress, reducing levels of the inflammatory stress hormone known as cortisol. Chronic inflammation is unhealthy and can exacerbate pain. Reducing cortisol results in reduced inflammation, which in itself can help diminish pain.
Exercise also helps to lubricate the joints and muscles, keeping them supple and flexible. The old adage, “use it or lose it,” is profoundly true when it comes to keeping the body in tip-top condition. That’s why we think any exercise that you love doing is the best exercise for fibromyalgia patients. Here’s what the research has found on the benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia.
Exercise can be as effective as medications
Winfried Häuser, MD, from Technische Universität München in Germany compared studies of pharmacologic (involving prescription medicine) and non-pharmacologic (alternative treatments including exercise) interventions for fibromyalgia. He found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two.
Dr. Häuser observed that:
“[S]tudies may show an effect of drugs, but the effects of drugs are lost once the patient is not taking them. In contrast, we see sustained but declining effects of aerobic exercise and multicomponent therapy [e.g. psychotherapy and exercise] in fibromyalgia at 1 or 2 years.”
Dr. Häuser was quick to note that patients should be treated as individuals and not as a statistical whole. Some therapies that work for some patients may be completely ineffective for others. He offers a general approach to treatment in stages, depending on the level of the condition and the individual patient.
For patients with relatively mild fibromyalgia, he recommends exercise for fibromyalgia and close contact with the doctor to monitor the condition. His recommendations include psychotherapy and pharmacological interventions when necessary for more severe cases, but in general, exercise is one of his fundamental approaches to the pain condition.
Yoga helps reduce pain and fatigue
Yoga really is one of the best exercise for fibromyalgia options you can try.
A study published in the journal Pain found women who participated in special yoga awareness classes experienced greater reductions of pain, fatigue, and other symptoms than those who received standard care. The yoga awareness program consisted of 40 minutes of gentle stretching, a 25-minute meditation, and then additional time spent discussing the home practice of yoga.
In additional to feeling better physically, the women in the study reported mental benefits. They experienced less stress and were less likely to catastrophize, which is a psychology term that refers to a tendency to expect the worst, or ruminate on the worst possible scenario.
Catastrophizing is related to stress and depression. Mindfulness, which is the ability to stay in the present moment, is a powerful antidote to thinking this way. Mindfulness is also central to the practice of yoga.
Fibromyalgia patients may underestimate their movement
Even with this support, there is evidence that not only do fibromyalgia sufferers move less than they ought to, but they also erroneously report that they are moving more. Michael McLoughlin, M.S., and a research team from the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin had a group of fibromyalgia patients wear an accelerometer on their hip for a week to track actual movement against self-reported movement.
They found that:
- Fibromyalgia subjects reported less physical activity (confirmed by accelerometer data) than controls
- Both those with fibromyalgia and controls reported higher levels of activity than could be validated by accelerometer data
- Self-reported activity levels were poorly correlated with accelerometer activity in fibromyalgia but not controls
- High depression scores in fibromyalgia correlated with lower physical activity
What is important in this finding is that pain doctors need to be proactive and creative when making sure that their fibromyalgia patients get enough exercise. This means the first step is convincing patients that although it may be hard to get started, the benefits of exercise for fibromyalgia can be tremendous.
Daniel Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology and medicine at the University of Michigan, notes:
“Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for fibromyalgia. It benefits all of the symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain, fatigue, and sleep problems.”
Get your life back
Put simply, the best exercise for fibromyalgia is one that you love doing so much that you’ll continue doing it. Exercise is a crucial component to any fibromyalgia treatment plan. It can improve mood, decrease pain, and help you get back to your life.
For many patients, using exercise along with a targeted treatment plan will help them find the most relief from pain. Click the button below to find a pain doctor in your area who has dedicated experience in treating chronic pain patients just like you.