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Fibromyalgia and Exercise

If you have fibromyalgia with painful tender points, deep muscle pain, and fatigue, exercise is probably the last thing on your mind. Yet, exercise may be just what the doctor ordered. Whether it's daily walks, stretching, swimming, yoga, tai chi, or Pilates, low-impact exercise programs can keep you fit in spite of your fibromyalgia -- and may help reduce your pain, as well.

Why Is Exercise Important for Fibromyalgia?

Experts believe that exercise is essential for keeping muscles strong and flexible, controlling weight, and helping you stay active in other areas of life. In fact, exercise and activity allow patients to have some control over fibromyalgia and the amount of pain they feel.

It used to be that doctors thought that exercise might worsen fibromyalgia symptoms or accelerate the disease. So doctors encouraged patients to seek rest, not activity. But recent scientific studies have shown that, for most patients, range of motion, strengthening, and aerobic conditioning exercises are safe and necessary.

Does Exercise Boost Endorphins in Those With Fibromyalgia?

Studies show that exercise can help restore the body's neurochemical balance and that it triggers a positive emotional state. Not only does regular exercise slow down the heart-racing adrenaline associated with stress, but it also boosts levels of natural endorphins -- pain-fighting molecules that may be responsible for the well-known "runner's high." Endorphins help to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.

Does Exercise Boost Serotonin in People With Fibromyalgia?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that scientists have found to be related to fibromyalgia. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that send specific messages from one brain cell to another. While only a small percentage of all serotonin -- 1% to 2% -- is located in the brain, this neurotransmitter is believed to play a vital role in mediating moods.

Studies have found that too much stress can lead to permanently low levels of serotonin. That, in turn, can create aggression. An increased level of serotonin in the brain is associated with a calming, anxiety-reducing effect. In some cases, it's also associated with drowsiness. A stable serotonin level in the brain is associated with a positive mood state or feeling good over a period of time. Lack of exercise and inactivity can aggravate low serotonin levels.

How Is Serotonin Related to Women and Fibromyalgia?

It appears that women may have a greater sensitivity to changes in this brain chemical. Mood swings during the menstrual cycle, menopause, or following the birth of a child may be hormonally induced through the action of the hormones on neurotransmitters.

Various factors -- such as sunlight, certain carbohydrate foods, some hormones, and exercise -- can have a positive effect on serotonin. Exercise acts as nature's tranquilizer by helping to boost serotonin in the brain. Studies have also shown that exercise triggers the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones that are known to boost alertness. For those who feel "stressed out" frequently, exercise can help to desensitize your body to stress.

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