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How to Exercise When You Have Pain

Exercise for chronic pain

When you live with pain and fatigue, it can be really hard to begin exercising. It can even feel overwhelming to think about it, let alone begin planning it and doing it! In fact, many people who live with pain or fatigue conditions deliberately avoid exercise to prevent flare ups or to limit exacerbations of pain. This is really normal. However, when this persists for a while, it can actually make your pain and fatigue worse. Your body begins to decondition, so it is not able to perform at the level it once was.

Hands up: who has been told to “do more exercise to help your pain.”

But rather than thinking of exercise in the traditional way – gym programs, jogging, or pilates classes – begin to think about physical activity – or what I like to reframe as just activity.

Activity means anything where you move your body. Seems easier to think about doesn’t it ;)

I like to ask people to start with activities they have stopped doing because of a fear of flare ups and these activities can be something simple. Could you take the dog for a walk? Could you catch up with a friend for a coffee by the beach? By beginning to explore activities you would like to get back to, it helps you to feel motivated and that you are making progress.

Afterall, pain sucks because of what it takes away from us. What if we could develop a way to get some of that stuff back?

What if by re-introducing some of these activities back into your life we can improve your mood and get you closer to your goals?

How to Get Started

Pick an Activity You Enjoy: What did you used to love, but can no longer do because of your pain? Where is a reasonable place to start? Be honest about your current level of activity and set your goal from that point. Did you love ocean swimming? Maybe a 2k swim is too much now, but could you go to the beach and dip your toes in the water? How would that make you feel?

Do a Little Bit Often: I often tell my patients to pick an activity that they can manage but do often. Managing your activity in this way will lead to improvements in your general health, but will limit potential flare ups. This is also the best way of making regular activity part of your usual routine. Make sure your activity level is within what you can tolerate, if you can manage a 10 minute walk well, don’t attempt a 20 minute walk. Accepting where you are at and trusting that the body will adapt in time is crucial to the process.

Pain with Exercise/Activity is Normal: Remember you are asking your body to do more than it has done for a while. It is likely to protest. However, remember that pain does not mean that there is tissue damage. Feeling sensations of stretching, pulling, aches or sometimes a shooting pain, can all be expected. What is important to understand, is if these pains hang around and limit you from doing your usual tasks after you have finished your activity. If they do hang around, don’t worry, you have simply done a bit too much. Re-evaluate your activity and reduce what you do next time. Will you do a bit less, work for a shorter time, not go as far?

Celebrate Your Wins: You need to be your own cheer squad! If you have stuck to your activity routine, celebrate! If you can now add a new activity into your program, celebrate! Make a plan of how you will celebrate, and make it good, so you have a reward to look forward to for all your hard work. Tell your family and friends your achievements – they might want to celebrate with you :)

Flare Ups are Normal: A flare up is a normal part of a chronic pain condition. It’s ok to have a flare up when you introduce an activity program. Listen to the feedback your body has given you and adjust for next time. Let your symptoms settle and then start with a reduced activity level.

Professional Advice: If you need help getting started, a physiotherapist can help you with goal setting, and designing an individualised program of increasing your activity levels. We can also help if you have encountered a flare up and need advice on what to do next.

Getting active with pain is difficult to do and it takes a lot of trust in your body and yourself to get started. Increasing your activity will unlock activities that you thought you would never be able to do again. It’s a big step, but we are here to help.

Be brave, take the step and if you need assistance, we are here to help.

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