The 5 Best Exercises for Chronic Pain

Exercise is one of the MAJOR keys to recovering from chronic pain.

There are many studies showing how exercise reduces pain and improves quality of life. However the exercise needs to be done in a certain way. Exercise for chronic pain works best when it is:

  • regular
  • safe
  • aerobic

For anyone, quality of life is a big picture concept. However inside this big picture are five domains, and exercise helps with all of them.

Regular, safe exercise will improve:

  • Pain levels – studies have shown that exercise is as effective for pain relief as taking anti-inflammatories and pregabalin (and with no side effects)
  • Exercise improves mood, especially depression and anxiety
  • Cognition – exercise helps you get a clearer head and better memory. This is partly because as it relieves pain, you can start to reduce medication which clouds your thinking
  • Physical function – as your body gets stronger, you’re more able to do more, and be stronger
  • Sleep – exercise helps you sleep better, and reduces fatigue. This is a huge factor in chronic pain recovery

Every single one of these domains have a big effect on your quality of life. Amazingly exercise helps all of them!

How Exercise Works on Chronic Pain

Here’s an image to help you see how exercise for chronic pain should be handled.

You’re high up in a burning building – this is what living with chronic pain is like. The only way to escape the building is thin plank, going out from the burning building to safe place. On either side of the plank is a huge drop.

Exercise for chronic pain is a balancing act

The thin plank in this metaphor is exercise, and it’s how you’re going to escape the burning building of chronic pain.

If you choose not to go out on the plank, you’ll stay in the burning building.)

To escape across the plank, you need balance. This means going slowly and carefully. If you run full tilt at the plank and trying to race across. you’re likely to overbalance and fall.

This means that if you used to run marathons, or play 80 minute soccer games, that’s not how you start your exercise regime.

Instead, at Life After Pain, we use a very specific rule to get started exercising when you’ve been out of action for a while due to pain.

The ‘That’s Ridiculous’ Rule of Exercise when You’re In Pain

To begin exercising, choose he type of exercise you enjoy. It can walking, jogging, swimming or something else. Ideally, it should be an exercise can do regularly so becomes a habit.

The most important thing is to start with the amount of exercise that will not flare your pain system and and turn on your pain.

The amount of exercise you start with should make you say:

“That’s ridiculous! It’s way too little!”

If you ignore this rule, you’ll end up in boom and bust. Boom and bust is a great way to keep your pain system amplified and your chronic pain strong.

(Boom and Bust is when you overdo your exercise and your pain system flares. You’re incapacitated for a few days, and do nothing. And then, as soon as you feel better, you do overdo things again, and have a pain flare. And this repeats again and again and again.)

Don’t do this.

The best type of exercise for chronic pain is:

  1. Aerobic. This means you get to 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. A simple way to test this is that when you’re moving, and you can talk to someone at the same time (or whistle.)
  2. Manageable. Do a ridiculously small amount of exercise to start with
  3. Incremental. Gradually increase the amount you do – a little bit more each day. After a month, you’ll be amazed how far you’ve come.
Walking is a great exercise for pain relief and increased mobility

Types of Exercise for Chronic Pain Recovery

Most of the studies on exercise and chronic pain look at walking. Walking is a great mode of exercise, because it is:

  • Anti gravity (which is important if you’ve been sitting or lying down a lot)
  • Natural – our bodies designed to walk
  • Well balanced – all your muscles get used when you’re walking
  • Cardiovascular – walking increases heart rate and blood flow

In short, walking is great! And it’s proven it will increase your quality of life, especially when you slowly increase your speed of walking and your distance. (One fancy trick is to check the amount of steps you do each day with at Fitbit or similar.)

Other good forms of exercise are:

  • cycling
  • jogging
  • swimming
  • aqua jogging (low impact, very healthy)
  • skipping (great aerobic exercise, good in winter, great for coordination)

Tools like a treatmill of cycling machine are useful to keep exercising through winter and the height of summer. You can set the exact level of difficulty, and track your progress. However, it’s just as possible to do this without any machines.

The main aim is to keep your exercise under the level that will turn on your pain system’s protective mechanism.

The other key is to be regular. You can exercise 3-4 times a week, however a little bit every day is even better. The evidence is clear, this type of incremental exercise is a powerful way to reduce your pain and increase your quality of life.


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