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  • Brad Wolfe, B.A., Registered Kinesiologist

Chronic Pain and Activity: Exercises to Try

As an individual living with chronic pain, you are well aware of the difficulties movement can bring to your condition. We also know of the bevy of studies promoting exercise as a great pain fighting tool. When beginning an exercise regimen to combat your pain, a lot of trial and error will be involved. Too much of the wrong activity can make your pain worse, so finding exercises that are actually “doable” can be a difficult task. There will be many times in which you feel fully confident handling certain exercises, only to find their completion results in painful flare-ups. In the end, you need to find what types of activity are best for you. Below is a list of activities that are typically well suited to individuals living with pain. Once again, before beginning any new activity regimen, be sure to discuss with your pain specialist or physician.


Walking is a fairly low-impact activity that is a good choice for those just starting their new exercise routine. It can be done almost anywhere: in the home, throughout your neighbourhood, at the mall, gym, or local high school track. Very little direction is needed with walking, so it is an easy way for beginners to get more active. Studies have shown that walking provides a number of healing benefits. Like all cardiovascular activities, it increases blood flow throughout the body which helps to transport oxygen to damaged tissues and cells. This increased oxygen flow also plays a large role in neuroplasticity; the brain’s ability to regenerate following injury or trauma. Walking also helps to rebuild stamina after bouts of inactivity and can boost our mood and energy levels through the release of endorphins in the body. The gentle, but load bearing nature of walking can do a lot of good in reducing stiff muscles and joints as well. Walking involves using major muscle groups such as the legs, back, and core, furthermore making this activity a great all around exercise.


Cycling is another gentle form of cardiovascular activity that can have great pain fighting properties. It helps improve muscular flexibility and range of motion in the lower extremities and also assists in the conditioning of ligaments and muscles that are left inactive following episodes of pain. The light resistance offered by cycling also helps build endurance in the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and calf muscles. Strength in the bones, ligaments, and tendons surrounding these muscles will also benefit from the light resistance cycling provides. For those dealing with back pain related to muscle tightness, flexibility in the hamstrings is crucial. Cycling can be a great way to relax the hamstrings, which takes stress off of the low back and can relieve pain. Because cycling is low impact, many individuals in pain find it an activity they can complete in longer bouts. The longer we can stay active and moving, the more calories we burn, so cycling can definitely be beneficial for those looking to lose a bit of weight in the process.

Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic Therapy includes aerobics, movements, and stretches performed in water. For individuals who suffer from mobility issues or have difficulties walking, aqua therapy can be a great way to get more active. Aqua therapy is very light on the joints and is an effective way to treat pain along the back, spine, and neck. The buoyancy of the water protects the body from the stress of gravity and prevents us from making those quick, jarring movements that may otherwise cause you pain. The water’s buoyancy also allows individuals to complete a number of exercises using minimal equipment. The water offers light resistance against the body, making it ideal for the completion of gradual strength training. Exercising in warm pool water also helps apply what’s called “hydrostatic pressure” across the body. When our bodies are fully submerged in water, the pressure of the water on our skin can actually help to relax the muscles and reduces fluid build-up. It also helps promote circulation, decreases blood pooling in the extremities, and dampens tactile sensory output to the brain (in turn, reducing pain levels in the process).


Swimming is another activity that can be beneficial for those who experience pain from higher impact exercises such as jogging or walking. Much like aqua therapy, the buoyancy of the water while swimming reduces the amount of stress on the joints and allows for more gentle and fluid movements. Swimming has been shown to improve cardiovascular health and increases our heart rate and lung capacity just as well as any aerobic exercise out there. In turn, swimming also has a positive effect on the brain by spurring endorphin release and increasing neuroplasticity (or healing) in the brain itself. Swimming is also a great way to improve our stamina, muscle strength, and flexibility by working key muscles in the back, shoulders, arms, legs, and core. Make sure to find a swimming stroke that works for you. If you prefer, swim with side or back strokes rather than front strokes. You can start by using a flutter board and kicking with just your legs to promote movement. You can also utilize a pool noodle to “scull” across the pool by just using your arms. Choose a stroke that is best for your condition and does not lead to large flare-ups in pain.


Yoga is a practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. It focuses on the body-mind connection and incorporates a combination of physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation/relaxation skills. Restorative Yoga can be especially beneficial for those dealing with chronic pain. It combines gentle stretches and poses with conscious breathing to relieve tension and stress throughout the body. The simplicity of Restorative Yoga is great for beginners and for those worried that the “traditional” yoga poses may be painful to complete. Many poses in Restorative Yoga involve no movement at all and the stillness that is promoted helps the body release deep layers of tension. It has been shown that breathing component of Yoga can actually be just as beneficial as movement and stretching in relieving pain. The breathing element of yoga poses is an active process that focuses the mind on healing thoughts, sensations, and emotions. This helps to shift the body out of the “stress response” and into relaxation, which is vital for chronic pain sufferers with already overactive and sensitive central nervous systems. Along with this, Yoga helps to build endurance, improves sleep and concentration, and increases energy levels.

Tai chi

Tai Chi is martial arts based exercise that originated in ancient China. Much like Yoga, Tai Chi is built on the foundation of synchronization in the body, mind, and soul. Tai Chi uses slow and controlled movements and fluid shifting of one’s own body weight. These low impact movements are paired with breathing and attention to detail to promote a calm mind. Tai Chi can be practiced in different styles, which makes it easily adjustable to your level of pain and conditioning. The movement involved in this type of exercise helps improve blood circulation and the stiffness of muscles and joints. Consistent use of Tai Chi has been shown to have a positive impact on one’s overall emotional distress by promoting general positivity and feelings of relaxation. The concentration and mindfulness involved in Tai Chi can also improve functioning of the immune and autonomic nervous systems. In turn, this can have a great impact on individual’s overall pain levels, well being, and quality of life.

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