Exercise often gets a bad rap for being so difficult. This feeling is intensified if you have chronic pain. Exercise can increase pain in the moment and, if done improperly, can worsen pain over a longer period of time. But exercise is also one of the best treatments you can use to manage your pain. Although strenuous exercises may not be an option for you, increasing general physical activity, may be just what you need. If we change how we think about exercise to include any form of physical activity, even going out to get the mail counts toward your daily exercise!
It's important to note the difference between using exercise to improve your fitness level and exercising for a healthier lifestyle.
- Exercising for improvement in fitness requires strenuous and continuous activity on a regular basis.
- Exercising to gain health benefits (i.e. improved serum lipid levels, reduction of blood pressure, weight management, decreased pain levels) can be enjoyed by accumulating moderate-intensity activity throughout the day. The benefits from three 10 minute walks or one 30-minute walk is similar.*
*Watch this 9 min video on the importance of getting 30 minutes of activity every day.
In 1996, the Surgeon General released the first report on physical activity and health summarizing an exhaustive review of the research on physical activity. It recommended that people of all ages strive to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate intensity lifestyle activity throughout the day on most days of the week. The World Health Organization has similar recommendations. Moderate activity can be defined as equivalent to walking at 3-4 mph on most, preferably all, days of the week.
Knowing that regular exercise can come in a variety of forms and need not be strenuous to achieve health benefits, may lead you to wonder, "So, where do I start?"
Talk with your doctor first - Your doctor may have some ideas and insights that may give you a focused plan to begin increasing your activity. They will also be able to give you instructions on what to watch for that may aggravate your particular pain condition. If your condition is severe, you may request referral to a physiotherapist to get specially targeted exercises.
Set reasonable goals - People who stay physically active for 6 months usually end up making regular activity a habit.
Alternate activity with rest initially - Progress slowly in the areas of exercise intensity, duration and complexity of movement. Too much exercise can increase pain. Muscle or joint pain that lasts more than two hours after the exercise, or fatigue lasting into the next day, indicates the exercise level was too much too fast. The key is not to use these increased symptoms as an excuse to stop exercising. Just exercise less strenuously or for a shorter time the next day.
Adapt physical activity to your individual needs - When is your energy the highest? What activities fit with where you live? Are you better at being active with a group or alone? Do you have a pet who could get exercise with you? These are all factors that can help inform your decisions about what physical activity may be right for you.
Select activities that you are likely to stay with over time - There is no sense in starting exercises you don't enjoy. Pick activities that bring you a sense of fulfillment, as well as getting your cardio up a little. Maybe taking a dance class once a week, or gardening a few times a week. Hiking at a local park, or swimming at the local community centre. These are all options that can be fun and easily incorporated into your schedule.
Make simple lifestyle activity changes - Alter your current everyday tasks to increase your physical activity. Instead of using the elevator, take the stairs. When going shopping, park at the far end of the parking lot so you walk a greater distance. If you have a dog, take it for a short walk around the block instead of just letting them out to the backyard (they'll love this idea too).
The following are some low-impact options for physical activity to incorporate in your everyday life:
- Washing the car
- Playing with Children or Grandkids
- Tai Chi
- Water-based Exercises
- Modified use of weight lifting machines
- Arts and crafts
These activities can all be used as alternatives to more strenuous forms of activity, such as hiking, jogging, etc., which may cause excessive pain and discomfort to more severe forms of chronic pain.
Find specific physical activity resources for Back Pain, Arthritis, Fibromyalgia and Neck Pain
Household Chores to Build Functional Fitness - American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Exercise Videos - The Arthritis Foundation
Range of Motion and Strengthening Exercises - University of Washington
Tips for getting started with Fitness and Exercise - University of Michigan
Yoga for Chronic Pain - The American Pain Foundation
Exercise Eases Anxiety in Chronically Ill Patients - WebMD
Exercise as a Treatment for Musculoskeletal Disorders - Cochrane Library
- John Hopkins Medicine,Health Information. Internet . 2002.
- Andersen RE, Blair SN, Cheskin LJ, Barlett SJ. Encouraging patients to become more physically active: The physicians's role. Ann Int Med 1999; 127(5):395-400.
- Pate RR, Pratt M, Blair SN. Physical activity and public health: A recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine. JAMA 1995;(272):402-407.
- Jakicic JM, Wing RR, Butler BA, Robertson RJ. Prescribing exercise in multiple short bouts versus one continuous bout: effects on adherence, cardiorespiratory fitness, and weight loss in overweight women. Int J Obes 1995;(19):893-901.
- World Health Organization and CDC. Internet . 2002.
Last Updated: July 5, 2011
Reviewed by: Marc White PhD, Scientific & Executive Director, CIRPD