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When Lynne Matallana was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she spent most of her time in bed. Then her doctor suggested she get some exercise.

“I knew I’d have to start really slowly, so I started exercising while I was still in bed,” says Matallana, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. “I’d do some stretching for about half an hour and then take a rest.”

Gradually she worked up to walking to the mailbox and back, and then to more steady exercise on a treadmill. Today, she credits exercise with playing a big role in improving her fibromyalgia pain.

This step-by-step plan can get you started on your own exercise program for fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia Exercise Step 1: Know That It Can Help

“Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for fibromyalgia,” says Daniel Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology and medicine at the University of Michigan. “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.

“Moving your body may be the last thing you feel like doing, but you have to believe that it really does help,” Matallana says. “It’s hard at first, but it does get easier.”

Fibromyalgia Exercise Step 2: Start Slowly

Whether you’re used to running marathons or you’ve never exercised, the key is to start with something small and gradually increase your activity level. Like Matallana, many of those with fibromyalgia need to start very slowly.

Clauw sometimes tells his patient to think of exercise like taking a medication that starts out with a low dose and increases over time. For example, you can start walking just five minutes a day for a week and then add a minute each week until you’re up to 20 to 30 minutes a day. “It might take 15 weeks to reach that point, but that’s OK,” Clauw says.

“For people who aren’t used to exercising, we focus on getting them to be more active and don’t even call it exercise,” he adds. “Instead, we talk with them about being more active, such as walking a bit more or climbing a flight of stairs.”

Moving your body at all may be difficult at first, but as you continue, you should notice that the activity gets easier.

A 2010 study published in Arthritis Research & Therapy found that regular daily activities, such as taking the stairs, gardening, or doing chores, can help reduce pain and improve daily functioning for those with fibromyalgia. “This study shows us that every bit of activity is beneficial for fibromyalgia pain,” Clauw says. “It doesn’t need to be a formal exercise program.”

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