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Fibromyalgia and Exercise: Yes, You Can

Exercise eases the pain of fibromyalgia. Getting started may not be easy, but it’s worth it.

Strength Training and Low-Impact Exercise

What if you don’t have access to a pool? Don’t despair: Walking, biking, and other forms of low-impact aerobic activity also provide benefits. “Grab a buddy, take a class, or look into physical therapy,” Arnold suggests.

And don’t rule out strength training. Although doctors once believed that strength training could worsen pain in people with fibromyalgia, new research suggests that this is not the case. In fact, the latest research -- presented at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Orlando -- suggests that strength training can have the same ameliorating effect on pain as aerobic exercise.

Lynne Matallana, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association in Anaheim, Calif., says the benefits of exercise for people with the condition are tremendous. “This has been shown scientifically and anecdotally,” she says.

Matallana’s own experience has shown her that exercise can also soothe the mind. A former dancer, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1995. “I have watched how exercise has improved my symptoms and my overall outlook,” she says. “When I got in water, I could do movements that were almost like dance. That touched my soul again.”

Getting Over the Mental Hurdles

Let’s face it: It may hurt just to think about going from couch potato to marathon runner. To avoid getting overwhelmed, take it in stages.

“If you have fibromyalgia, you have this amplified pain signal telling you that something is wrong,” Mattalana says. “It’s a natural instinct to want to protect your body by going to bed, but that actually makes pain worse.”

Try these two tips to get your mind on board:

  • Give yourself a pep talk. “Tell yourself that this is going to be beneficial,” Mattalana says. “Say, ‘Today I will do just this amount because I know this will help me feel better.” 
  • Set realistic goals. Arnold often prescribes five minutes of walking to start. “People may think that won’t be too difficult, but it can be if you have fibromyalgia,” she says. “We start very slow and build up from there, and emphasize that there is no hurry.”

From Skeptic to Believer

In the beginning, Mattalana scoffed at the thought of doing only three minutes on the treadmill, but it wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. “I slowly got my body conditioned and got to a point where I could add more exercise,” she says. “It is a slow process, but every time you get up, stretch, walk, get into a pool, or take a yoga class, you are one step closer to feeling better.”

“Once you convince people to start exercising, they become believers,” says Daniel J. Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology and medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It’s not until they do it and see how much it helps that they embrace it.”

How long does that usually take? “Some people will notice changes right away, but for others, it may take a couple of weeks,” he says.

Exercise is not a panacea for fibromyalgia, Clauw says. But, he says, “it works in more people than anything else. I can’t remember an instance where someone got into an exercise program and didn’t notice a significant improvement in symptoms.”

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Reviewed on October 19, 2011
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