One of the things I get asked about the most is what kind of exercising I do on a daily basis to help with my fibromyalgia and provide some pain relief. Daily exercise is perhaps the best medicine for fibromyalgia. It helps me reduce some of the triggers I have for pain spikes with my fibromyalgia (stress, worry, etc.). It also loosens up my tight and painful muscles, builds muscle strength, keeps me at a healthy weight, and helps me blow off some steam after a tough day at work.
I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid that exercising will make the pain worse, or that when they do exercise, they feel worse either that same day or the next day. Exercise is vital in my personal battle to control my fibromyalgia. It isn’t easy for me to keep exercising. I come home from work, I’m exhausted, I hurt all over and all I want to do is crawl in bed. As my doctor once told me, I have to get over “that mental hurdle” of not wanting to move anymore, of just wanting to collapse and conserve what little bit of energy I have left. I have to get over that mental hurdle every day. It’s tough, but it’s worth it. Since I started exercising daily in April, my pain is a little less, the highs and lows of the pain have evened out some, my mood has improved, and I feel stronger. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process. I gradually became aware of changes in my body and mood. Each day that I felt better than the last was like its own victory.
We’ve always heard with exercising, “No pain, no gain!” Well this is just not true for fibromyalgia and chronic pain sufferers. If we push ourselves too hard, we’re going to pay for it with a bad pain day the next day. For chronic pain and fibromyalgia sufferers, I think our exercising motto/guide should be “Small gains, less pain!” We have to slowly increase our amount and intensity of exercise. You can’t just go from doing no exercise to working out vigorously for 45 minutes, then lifting weights, then doing a cool down walk (which was my usual workout in college before my chronic pain started). When you start from no daily exercise, all you can do is go up from there. You slowly building up your energy and strength. If you move to fast, you will hurt. I’ve done it. I still do it. It’s going to happen, but I promise daily exercise is still worth it.
My “Small gains, less pain!” Workout Plan
I went on my 11-week leave of absence at the being of April. One of the first things I did, was get a dry erase board that has a month’s calendar out on it. I just had to fill in the dates. For each week, I noted my exercise goals. I would increase my goal every 2 weeks, if I felt like I was now able to do that amount of exercise in one day pretty well. I also kept a journal of how well I did each week. If I had found the week’s goal hard, I noted it but I didn’t judge myself. I just wanted to track my progress so I could increase my goals at my own personal pace. I knew I had to start small and build myself back up. All of the exercise detailed below is gentle. I started with a slow pace for walking and built up to a medium pace. I started with an intensity of 1 on my exercise bike and built up to an intensity of 4 or 5 depending on how I’m feeling. I listened to my body and increased things slowly.
Weeks 1-2: 15 minutes of exercise daily, daily stretching as needed
When I first started I was going from no daily exercise to 15 minutes of exercise. That may not sound like a lot, but it is. I had to really fight to get over the mental hurdle and get up and exercise. It was really hard, but I did it. At first, I usually had to break my 15 minutes into two short walks a day. I would do some gentle stretching before and after, and maybe a third time throughout the day. By the second week, I could do the 15 minutes in one session, most of the time. On my bad days, I still needed to break up the 15 minutes.
Weeks 3-4: 20 minutes of exercise daily, daily stretching, yoga at least once a week
By the end of week 2, I felt confident enough to increase my exercise by 5 minutes a day. This probably sounds like nothing, but it’s not. It was a big jump for me. I tried to do it all in one session the first day and come home huffing and puffing and didn’t accomplish anything else that day. I had to break it down into two sessions again. After doing that for a while, I could do 20 minutes in one session again. I started exercising by both walking outside and biking on the exercise bike I have in my basement. I have found having my own exercise machine has been a lifesaver. On cold, wet, or really humid days, going outside makes me feel worse, so I bike instead.
I would still stretch before and after my exercise. I would try to stretch for small sessions throughout the day. A few back bends here to stretch out my back, a few lunges there to stretch out my hips. You get the idea. I also worked a yoga session into my routine. I’ve done yoga since college. I’ve done it in classes, with DVDs and on my own. I’ll save yoga for another post, but I don’t know what I’d do without yoga. I started small and tried to do maybe 20 minutes of yoga. The whole point of yoga is doing what feels right for your body, so that was my rule.
Weeks 5-6: 25 minutes of exercise daily, daily stretching, yoga twice a week
I increased my amount of cardio exercise a day by 5 minutes again. By the end of week 4 I could do 20 minutes in one session almost every day. 5 minutes was again a hard jump for me. I broke it down into two sessions again, even three sessions on my bad days. I kept up with my stretching and tried to do yoga twice a week. Yoga again was all about what felt right for me that day, so I didn’t really have a time limit on it by this point. I just did what my body needed me to do.
Week 7-8: 30 minutes of exercise daily, daily stretching, yoga at least three times a week
This was the hardest 5 minute increase for me. I don’t know why, but going from 25 to 30 minutes seemed like a gigantic daily increase in my level of exercise. I had to break the 30 minutes down into three sessions to start with. Then I was able to do it in two sessions. It felt like a huge victory to me to be able to do 30 minutes of exercise in one day. Once I could do the full 30 minutes of exercise in one day, if I was feeling okay one day, I would try to increase my intensity a bit. By this point I felt stronger and wanted to push myself a little bit when I could. So on my better days I’d walk a bit faster or bike at an intensity one point higher than my norm. I’m up to an intensity of 5 now on my bike but that took me months to achieve.
As I exercised more, my muscles started to feel less tight. I wanted to try to keep that feeling around as long as possible so I did more yoga. On really good days, I’d do an hour of yoga. On bad days, 20 minutes or so. I’d do the poses that target the tightest area of muscles, which for me is always my legs, hips, and back.
Week 9-11: 35-40 minutes of exercise daily, daily stretching, yoga at least 3 times a week
My daily exercise plateaued at 35-40 minutes of cardio a day, because I felt that this was the maximum I’d be able to maintain when I went back to work. I again had to break my exercise down, usually into two sessions. As I got stronger, I could do it in one session. This 5 minute jump wasn’t as hard for me as the one to 30 minutes. I have no idea why. I kept up with my stretching and yoga at least three times a week for as long as my body needed that day. I would increase my workout intensity on my good days too.
Judgement Free Zone
You have to enter into a workout plan like this without any judgement or criticism of yourself. If it takes you longer to make these 5 minute increases, that’s okay. This is all about doing what’s right for you and your body. There is no judgement here. You can’t compare yourself to your normal, healthy friend and what her exercise routine is. That’s not just apples and oranges, it’s watermelons and oranges. You can’t even compare yourself and how much exercise you can do to another person with chronic pain or fibromyalgia. Each of us experiences pain differently. Our body reacts to it differently. No two people are going to feel exactly the same about every single aspect of fibromyalgia, including daily exercise. At first, there were days that I felt like exercise was making me feel worse. As I progressed, I noticed that if I skipped a day of exercise, I definitely felt worse the next day. So exercise for me has also become an investment in my tomorrow. It’s another way for me to increase the odds that I’ll have a better day tomorrow. After a while, I could distinguish the “good” pain you get after a good workout and my normal chronic aches and pains. That slight soreness that lets you know you did a good job with your workout was a good sign to me. I felt like I was doing something right.
Now that I’m back at work, I don’t usually have the option of breaking my exercise down into smaller chunks. I do it all in one session. So I don’t always meet my goal of 35-40 minutes of cardio a day now. I do my best to stick to that, but on my worst days all I can manage is a walk up the block and back. Some days, I really have to push myself hard to do 20 minutes on the bike. Other days, I can do 40 minutes on the bike and be surprised when I’m done because it felt easy. I feel different every day as far as my pain goes. It makes sense that I’m going to feel differently each day about my exercise too. I always keep this in mind and I do what my body needs me to do. There are some days now that I know what I need is yoga, not cardio, so I’ll do yoga for an hour or an hour an a half.
My Rules for Exercising with Fibromyalgia/Chronic Pain
- There is no judgement. No criticism. Just exercise.
- Always listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs.
- Slow and steady wins the race. I’m not going to be running a marathon anytime soon, but I do feel better than I used to and that’s all the victory I need.
- Set reasonable goals for YOU, not the you you were before fibromyalgia/chronic pain.
- Don’t think about that mental hurdle. If you do, you will find excuses not to exercise that day. If you find yourself making such excuses, put your tennis shoes on and go for a walk.
- Remind yourself, “Small gains, less pain.” The goal is to be better able to manage your fibromyalgia. Exercise won’t cure you of your pain, but it will help with it.
- Be kind to yourself. If you can’t do today what you were able to do yesterday, don’t beat yourself up. That’s just the nature of the game with fibromyalgia/chronic pain.