Chronic Pain and Exercise – Getting Started
If you are among the one third of Canadians living with moderate to severe chronic pain, you are likely well aware of the struggle to stay physically active. As we have discussed previously, many individuals dealing with pain tend to avoid physical activity to keep their pain levels in check…activity and exercise lead to increased pain, so why push myself just to hurt more in the end?
As we learn more about chronic pain and how best to treat it, regular exercise has emerged as a very important tool in pain management. Although we know that exercise can be beneficial, getting started with an appropriate activity regimen can be a daunting task. Here are a few tips on how to safely begin an exercise program to help manage chronic pain. Make sure, before beginning any new activity regimen, that you speak with your doctor or a healthcare professional to ensure a safe starting point.
An easy way to get moving is to start around the home. This could mean making an effort to reduce the amount of time you spend in bed or on the couch and gradually work to increase the completion of household chores or tasks.
Playing with your kids, sweeping the floors, gardening, and other things daily activities can play a role in increasing fitness and reducing symptoms.
Walking is another introductory activity and something most of us do every day. Begin a walking routine that best suits your current condition. Start with twice or even once a week, and begin at a pace that you are comfortable with.
If cardiovascular activity is out of the question, daily stretching can help to alleviate pain from tight musculature.
Dynamic stretches and range of motion exercises can help to loosen stiff joints and allow for gentle flexing of the muscles around the joint itself. Dynamic stretches can be completed daily and are great for warming up before exercise.
If stretching in conjunction with cardiovascular activity, use static stretches (i.e. without movement) to cool down and relax the muscles after activity.
Hold static stretches for around 20 seconds if possible.
Break up your activity
Studies have shown that there is no need to prolong activity through elevated pain to reap the benefits. Breaking your exercise into small bursts throughout the day can be just as effective and bring about the same positive results in the body. Breaking up your activity ensures you do not overexert yourself or cause extreme flare-ups in pain. If your goal is to walk for 30 minutes, start with three 10-minute walks a day.
It can also be beneficial to space out your “workout” days over the course of the week. Try not to complete exercise on consecutive days to start. This gives the body a chance to rest and recuperate following exertion.
Choose your exercise wisely
Choosing to partake in activities we enjoy usually helps us stick to a new exercise regimen. Think back to those fun activities or sports you may have done in the past. Revisit these and don’t be afraid to try new activities to find what is best for you.
Choose activities that fit your current lifestyle. Find activities that are doable within your pain thresholds and understand that some trial and error may be necessary to find what activity fits best.
Pair your activity with something else you enjoy, such as a favourite TV program or some good music. This can help distract us from our pain and the boredom some physical activity can bring.
Listen to your body
Remember to pace yourself and take breaks if your pain becomes too much to bear. There is no shame in slowing your pace or taking a quick breather when your pain levels are elevated.
It can be helpful to use a 0-10 scale to monitor pain levels while active. If your pain levels increase by more than 2 points from where you started, consider slowing down or taking a break. This will ensure you do not overexert yourself and cause large flare-ups in pain as a result.
Start small and slowly increase your activity levels over time. As you begin to meet activity goals, or your current routine becomes quite easy to complete, consider a slight increase in exercise intensity or duration.
Keep your goals realistic. Setting the bar too high often leads to failure and can result in non-compliance of your activity regimen.
Hold yourself accountable
Consider exercising with another person or under the supervision of a trainer/coach to hold you accountable. Exercising in group settings or joining a walking club is also a great way to increase social interaction and can both motivate us and help our self-confidence.
After successful completion of your workouts, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back. Reflect on the good you did for yourself and focus on the positive changes you are working to bring about in managing your condition.
Indulge with a small treat to satisfy your sweet tooth or treat yourself to a night out or something new like clothing or workout gear.
Keep in mind that getting started on a new activity regimen is tough…even tougher when we are dealing with persistent pain. There will be ups and downs along the way; some goals will be met, while others may be a bit out of our reach. This is okay though! Stick with it, and understand that every step you take is a step towards better managing your condition and overall health.