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  • Brad Wolfe, B.A., Registered Kinesiologist

Chronic Pain and Activity – Types of Exercise and their Benefits

We all know the important role that exercise can play in our overall well being. For years, doctors and health care professionals alike have promoted regular physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle. However, for those of us dealing with chronic pain conditions, maintaining a regular exercise routine can be extremely difficult. When in pain, we tend to look at physical activity as the enemy…exercise causes me pain, so avoiding movement should help reduce my pain levels right?

Well, not quite. Inactivity and living a sedentary lifestyle often leads to stiff muscles, diminished strength, poor mobility, and decreased flexibility. These effects will actually worsen your chronic pain symptoms in the end. Last month, we went over some tips on beginning a new activity regimen for pain. We will now take time to explore some of the different types of exercise that have been proven beneficial in managing chronic pain.

Aerobic activity

Aerobic activity is exercise that utilizes oxygen and helps to strengthen our respiratory muscles and pumping efficiency of the heart. Also referred to as cardiovascular activity, exercise of this nature can do a lot of good in increasing muscular endurance and overall conditioning. Regular cardiovascular activity also promotes improved blood flow and transports oxygen to all tissues of the body. This oxygen rich blood has great healing properties and can help in the recovery of muscle injuries and tightness. When completing exercise of this nature, it is very important to listen to your body to determine appropriate intensity levels. It may be smart to begin with low impact exercises such as walking, swimming, or cycling. These exercises get the heart pumping and will help to promote positive physiological changes in the body. Actually, aerobic activity that increases our overall heart rates has been shown to spur the release of chemicals called endorphins throughout the body. Endorphins act as the body’s natural painkiller, and help to reduce emotional distress such as depression and anxiety. The release of endorphins also helps boost our energy and can have a positive impact on our memory, attention, and concentration levels. Getting involved in a routine that includes aerobic activity is typically one of the first steps to help alleviate pain related symptoms and overall functioning.

Stretching exercises

Stretching is a great way to reduce muscle tension and stiffness that may be causing you increased pain. It also helps to increase flexibility and overall range of motion. Engaging in a regular stretching routine will also help you with the movements required to complete activities of daily living and household chores. Stretching can be done almost anywhere; lying in bed, in the shower, or even while waiting in line at the grocery store. It’s typically recommended that we “warm up” the muscles somewhat before static stretching. Therefore, you may want to partake in some range of motion activities first to get the blood flowing. Stretching “cold” muscles can lead to more pain, so be careful. Gently ease into position until you feel a light stretch and hold for around 20 seconds if possible. Do not “bounce” when stretching; stay still and make sure to breathe throughout. Movements during stretching or holding the stretch for too long can actually lead to more tightness in the end, so listen to your body to determine the intensity that best suits your condition.

Light-weight and strength training

Muscle strengthening exercises such as resistance training or lifting weights has also proven beneficial for some individuals living with persistent pain. This type of exercise helps to increase muscular strength and can make it easier to complete activities of daily living and household chores. More specifically, weight training helps to strengthen the muscles around our joints, which in turn, lessens the strain on our joints during physical activity. We also see benefits in tendon and ligament health along with increases in one’s bone density with regular resistance training. When beginning a strength training routine, it is extremely important to take things slow. Start by completing exercises using your own body weight or utilize light weights if able. It is very important to listen to your body and pace yourself to avoid further injury or pain. Focus on completing the movements correctly with proper technique before progressing to heavier weights. It is typically safe to begin with a level of resistance that allows you to perform 8 repetitions comfortably. When you are easily able to do this, increase to 10 reps, and then 12 if possible. If able to comfortably perform 2 sets of 12 repetitions without adverse effects, you may want to consider increasing the weight or resistance used in your routine. Remember to breathe during your lifts to promote relaxed muscles and to provide your body with the oxygen to do the work. Eventually, you will want to aim for two to three workouts per week with focus on major areas of the body including the legs, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and core.

Remember to speak with your physician or physical therapist before partaking in any of the above exercise modalities. By starting slow, listening to your body, and progressing towards specific individualized goals, you will be setting yourself up for great success. On the flip side, understand that you are bound to encounter some disappointments and perceived failures throughout the process. These things happen to even the most healthy and fit individuals out there, so try to look at these situations as learning opportunities rather than failures. Be sure to focus on your positive abilities rather than your disabilities and remember that persistence is the key. Even the most simple movements and actions can add up in the long run, so…“Do what you can, with what you have” and keep in mind that “Something is always better than nothing!”

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