Why exercise for fibromyalgia?
“It benefits all of the symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain, fatigue, and sleep problems.” Exercise can help maintain bone mass, improve balance, reduce stress, and increase strength. Getting regular exercise can also help control your weight, which is important to reducing the pain of fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia can try experimenting with different exercise routines to find what works best for them.
The types of exercise that may be helpful include:
Aerobic exercise, such as running or walking, can help with many symptoms of fibromyalgia. A 2017 review analyzed previous studies of aerobic exercise to treat fibromyalgia. The authors concluded that aerobic exercise could improve health-related quality of life and physical function while reducing stiffness and pain.
However, they classified the quality of evidence as low to moderate, as many of the included studies only included a small number of participants.
People concerned that aerobic exercise might place strain on their muscles or joints can opt for low impact aerobics, such as swimming.
Exercise classes can boost motivation among people with fibromyalgia, helping them stick to an exercise regimen. A person new to exercise could consider starting with a lower intensity activity, such as yoga, tai chi, or aerobics.
Some gyms and recreation centers may offer exercise classes specifically for people with fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or reduced mobility.
Tai chi is an ancient martial art that originated in China and incorporates stretching and slow movements. As it encourages mind-body awareness, it may help with both the physical and psychological symptoms of fibromyalgia.
A 2018 study in Boston, MA, found that Yang-style supervised tai chi could be as effective or more effective than aerobic exercise for managing fibromyalgia symptoms.
The participants in the study got the most relief when they attended tai chi classes frequently and regularly. People who attended two classes a week for 24 weeks had the most significant improvements in their revised fibromyalgia impact questionnaire (FIQR) scores.
Among those individuals, there was an average 16.2 point reduction in symptoms, with an 8.1 point symptom reduction being clinically significant. Overall, the tai chi participants saw an average symptom improvement of 5.5 points.
Resistance training strengthens muscles and can improve symptoms of fibromyalgia. A 2015 study of 130 women aged 22–64 years with fibromyalgia found that progressive resistance training was associated with greater overall health, pain relief, and muscle strength.
A wide range of strength training routines, from group strength classes to lifting weights at home, may help.
Yoga offers gentle stretching, mind-body awareness, and a slow and steady approach to physical fitness. A 2017 study found that yoga might reduce self-perceived disability and help with many fibromyalgia symptoms, including depression and fear or avoidance of movement.
The study included eight participants with fibromyalgia, all of whom were women.
Yet many people with fibromyalgia already struggle to get through their regular daily activities. Adding exercise on top of that may seem insurmountable. And pain and exhaustion can make it difficult to start and stick with regular workouts.
It’s natural to worry that any exercise will make your pain worse and leave you wiped out. But know that adding more physical activity into your day may actually decrease your pain, improve your sleep, and give you more energy.
So, how does a worried person with fibromyalgia get started? You might want to talk with your doctor about your current medical therapy when you’re planing to begin exercising. Questions to consider: Should I take my medications at different times of the day? What can I do either before I exercise or right after to minimize symptoms?
When you are ready to begin an exercise program, start slowly. Taking a small-steps approach to beginning an exercise plan can help. Add activity in small doses, every day if you can. Then build up your activity slowly over time.
For example, if you walked for 10 minutes today, try 11 minutes — a 10% increase — a week later. This approach is especially important for avoiding a phenomenon called post-exertional malaise (PEM). Many people with fibromyalgia have this problem. When they feel less pain or more energy, they may try to get things done that they have been unable to do because of symptoms. Often, they don’t realize when they are doing too much at once. They may wind up feeling so exhausted that it takes days or longer to recover. This is PEM, better known to people with fibromyalgia as a “crash.” A gradual approach to exercise can help prevent it.
In addition to gradually increasing movement over time, also try to choose activities that won’t put too much strain on your body. Experts typically recommend any low-impact aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming, or cycling. Your doctor may advise you to work with a physical therapist on exercises specifically aimed at reducing pain and stiffness and improving function. This may include stretching and strengthening as well as aerobic exercise.
Another form of exercise that has shown promise for people with fibromyalgia is tai chi. This ancient Chinese practice originated as a form of self-defense. It involves slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing exercises.
One 2018 study in The BMJ looked at 226 adults with fibromyalgia. Researchers assigned 151 members of the group to practice tai chi once or twice a week for either 12 or 24 weeks. The other 75 study participants did moderate-intensity aerobic exercise twice a week for six months. Researchers found that tai chi was better at relieving fibromyalgia symptoms than aerobic exercise.