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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.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Take it from a Cincinnati, Ohio, mother of six, Pat Holthaun: Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing if you have fibromyalgia, but it’s also one of the best things you can do to decrease pain.

Like many people, when Holthaun was diagnosed with the widespread pain disorder several years ago, she took up residence on her couch -- unwilling to even think about getting up and moving. But two years ago, the 72-year-old finally decided to take her doctor’s advice and enroll in a warm water aerobics class.

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“I just love it,” she says. “It’s such an enjoyable thing, and I am so much more limber and stronger now.” She likes it so much, she now does water aerobics three times a week.

Holthaun is on to something. Along with medication and education about fibromyalgia, exercise plays a critical role in managing the disease.

Fibromyalgia and Exercise: Slow and Steady

“Exercise improves a person’s overall sense of well-being and reduces pain and tenderness over time,” says Lesley M. Arnold, M.D. a psychiatrist and fibromyalgia expert at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio. “We try to pace it slowly and make sure that their symptoms of pain and fatigue are under control before we introduce it.”

The first step is typically an assessment of the person’s current fitness level. “We like to start them on a program that is a level or two below their current level, improve their stamina, and build up to 20 to 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity on most days of the week,” Arnold tells WebMD. “We really encourage them to pace things and set reasonable goals.”

Water Aerobics Soothe and Strengthen

For people with fibromyalgia, low-impact aerobics is the way to go. “We really like an aerobic water class and people tend to go back,” Arnold says.

The research backs her up. A study in Arthritis Research & Therapy found that water aerobics improve health-related quality of life in women with fibromyalgia.

These classes often start in warm-water pools, which can be soothing. What’s more, they are typically group-based, so people can garner support and motivation from other members of the group. Holthaun says that this helps people stick to a program. “People with fibromyalgia tend to isolate, but being in a group helps motivation,” she says.

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