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Exercising With Chronic Pain

When you’re living with chronic pain, staying active can be difficult. However, since regular exercise offers many benefits, it’s a shame to miss out on the perks. 

If you want to be active despite chronic pain, staying safe and preventing further injury with strategic physical activity is essential.

In this article, we’ll look at the benefits of exercising with chronic pain, how to do it safely, and tips for getting motivated.

What is considered chronic pain?

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According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than several months (usually anywhere from 3 to 6 months or longer).1

About 20.4 percent of American adults report having it, and 7.4 percent reported having high-impact chronic pain, which is pain that limits regular life or work activities nearly every day for 3 months or longer.1

Some of the most common types of chronic pain include:

  • Back pain
  • Headaches
  • Arthritis pain
  • Cancer pain
  • Fibromyalgia 

What are the benefits of exercise for chronic pain?

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Many types of chronic pain can be debilitating, which makes it hard to get active. For instance, if you’re suffering from pain daily, you’re probably focused on getting through the day instead of thinking about how you’ll fit in a workout

Unfortunately, if you’re not moving your body regularly, you’re more likely to be overweight, which can cause more health issues in the long run. However, regular exercise can combat weight gain and help you maintain a healthy weight for improved mobility and joint health

Exercising with chronic pain can also help in other ways, such as:2

  • Improving your mood
  • Enhancing your energy
  • Increasing your muscle strength
  • Lubricating your joints (for easier movement)
  • Helping you get better sleep

How do I exercise with chronic pain?

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Getting started is often the most challenging part, but the following steps might help you feel less overwhelmed:

  • Consult your doctor first. Before starting a new exercise program, talk with your doctor to determine when and how you should start. This will help ensure you stay safe and don’t accidentally injure yourself, causing more pain.
  • Choose a low-impact activity. Your doctor may also provide specific recommendations for how you should start moving your body, depending on your chronic pain type. Examples might include stretching, walking, or swimming.
  • Start slowly. Whatever physical activity you choose to do first, start slow! Gradually increase the duration and intensity as you get stronger. For example, don’t just start running three times a week. Start with walking and work your way up to jogging, and eventually, running.
  • Find a community. Exercising alone is less exciting and motivating than working out with others. Find a group of motivated individuals to help you stay on track. For instance, you might sign up for an exercise class or recruit a friend to walk with you daily.

What types of exercise help with chronic pain?

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Certain types of exercise are considered alternative treatments for chronic pain.3 A few effective options include:

  • Cycling: Riding a bike is a low-intensity exercise that’s easy on the joints, especially indoor cycling. It’s a very safe way to exercise with chronic pain and an effective way to manage your weight, improve your cardiovascular health, and enhance your mobility.
  • Walking: This low-intensity exercise is easy to do anywhere and anytime. All you need is a supportive pair of shoes. You can also walk indoors on a treadmill while working, watching TV, or listening to your favorite audiobook or podcast. If and when you feel up to it, you can ramp up the intensity of your workouts by jogging or running on the treadmill, too.
  • Yoga: With a mind/body exercise like yoga, you can improve your balance and flexibility with breathing exercises, meditation, and various physical postures. Studies show yoga is particularly beneficial for those with low back pain, and doing it regularly it may help you get some relief from the discomfort.4 Yoga can also improve your mindset and mood, even when you’re not feeling your best.
  • Swimming: Water activities like swimming can reduce the pressure on your joints, and the water provides resistance for your workouts without being too intense. One study even found aquatic therapy significantly reduced lower back pain and improved individuals’ overall quality of life.5
  • Strength training: Weak muscles can sometimes cause imbalances, resulting in pain. With strength training, you can strengthen weak muscles, which may help alleviate certain types of chronic pain like back pain or osteoarthritis. It can also help prevent the development of further chronic pain.6

Will chronic pain go away with exercise?

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We can’t promise exercise alone will fix your chronic pain, but there is a high likelihood it will help you feel better. Based on research findings, regular exercise provides a host of benefits for chronic pain sufferers. Although it’s not a “cure” for pain, when it’s combined with other forms of treatment, it may help you find substantial relief.7

Tips to help you get motivated to move

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Even with the knowledge that exercise can help, it isn’t easy to get moving! Here are a few tips to help you get motivated and stay that way:

  • Choose an activity you enjoy. You’re more likely to start and stick with it if your daily exercise is enjoyable. So think about what you like to do and go from there. For instance, if you enjoy biking, use a stationary bike to cycle with Vingo safely at home.
  • Set goals and measure progress. Seeing progress can help you stay motivated to keep moving. Even if your goal isn’t weight loss, feeling a gradual reduction in pain, enjoying more mobility, or feeling less depressed are all positive measurements of progress, too. Get creative with the ways you track your goals and keep things in perspective.
  • Listen to your body. If you feel like you need a rest day, take it. It’s better to avoid further injury than to try to force it. Tuning into your body’s needs will help you maintain a healthy balance of rest and physical activity.
  • Use Vingo. Vingo is a fun, easy, and accessible way to exercise. It’s especially great for chronic pain patients because you can cycle indoors with any indoor bike. This low-impact and effective exercise is one of the top recommended ways to move your body if you suffer from chronic pain. Plus, you can explore virtual places worldwide and connect with other cyclists, all without ever leaving your home.
  • Hire a trainer. If you need an extra push or someone to help create and manage your workout plan, consider hiring a personal trainer. Although it’s typically a little more pricey, it might be worth it to you. A trainer will help you establish healthy habits and stick to a manageable routine while providing accountability and support.

Key Takeaways:

Chronic pain is common and can sometimes be debilitating, but exercise can help. Certain low-impact forms of exercise, like cycling or swimming, are often best for chronic pain. These are enjoyable ways to move your body and can help alleviate symptoms like low back pain, achy joints, and help you manage a healthy weight.

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  1. Chronic Pain: What You Need To Know. (n.d.). NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/chronic-pain-what-you-need-to-know 
  2. Belavý, D. L., Van Oosterwijck, J., Clarkson, M. J., Dhondt, E., Mundell, N. L., Miller, C. L., & Owen, P. (2021). Pain sensitivity is reduced by exercise training: Evidence from a systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 120, 100–108. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.11.012 
  3. Ambrose, K., & Golightly, Y. M. (2015). Physical exercise as non-pharmacological treatment of chronic pain: Why and when. Best Practice & Research: Clinical Rheumatology, 29(1), 120–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.berh.2015.04.022 
  4. Holtzman, S., & Beggs, R. T. (2013). Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Pain Research & Management, 18(5), 267–272. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/105919 
  5. Baena-Beato, P. A., Artero, E. G., Arroyo-Morales, M., Robles-Fuentes, A., Gatto-Cardia, M. C., & Delgado-Fernández, M. (2014). Aquatic therapy improves pain, disability, quality of life, body composition and fitness in sedentary adults with chronic low back pain. A controlled clinical trial. Clinical Rehabilitation, 28(4), 350–360. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215513504943 
  6. Strength training protects against development of muscle pain | Carver College of Medicine. (n.d.). https://medicine.uiowa.edu/content/strength-training-protects-against-development-muscle-pain 
  7. Law, L. a. F., & Sluka, K. A. (2017). How does physical activity modulate pain? Pain, 158(3), 369–370. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000792

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