Water Exercise for Fibromyalgia: Easing Deep Muscle Pain

Water aerobics are easy workouts for people with fibromyalgia pain.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 10, 2010
3 min read

If you have fibromyalgia pain, you're likely clenching right now.

"Clenching is an involuntary reaction to stress," says Doris Cope, MD, director of Pain Management at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "People tense their muscles, and probably don't even realize they're doing it. That reduces blood flow to the muscles, which causes pain."

That's why a stressful lifestyle -- plus too much couch time -- is a double-whammy for conditions like fibromyalgia. Too little exercise slows blood flow to muscles, so fibromyalgia pain just gets worse.

Revving your pulse is one remedy, Cope says. "Running, walking, having sex with your husband -- these increase your pulse rate so you're getting more blood to muscles. That will reduce pain in muscles. The worst thing [for pain] is to lie there, because then it will only hurt more."

Studies show that walking, stretching, and strength training all help control fibromyalgia pain and muscle tenderness. Exercise just three times a week improves life on many levels. Exercise can relieve fatigue and depression, as well as help people feel better about themselves, more in charge of their lives.

"We know that exercise is the best thing for depression," Cope says. "It helps your mood, helps your sleep, and that helps your pain."

If starting an exercise program seems too painful, start slowly. Start with flexibility exercises -- stretching that improves your range of motion. Yoga classes, walking around the block, playing a round of golf can also get you started.

Water exercise -- aka, water aerobics -- is the easiest workout for people with fibromyalgia pain.

"If you can't exercise because of obesity, water therapy is a good place to start," Cope says. "Warm water can be very comforting. The exercise gets blood flow to muscles and tendons. And if you're in the water, your joints are not being stressed during exercise." Also, water offers resistance, which helps muscles get stronger.

You don’t need to know how to swim for a water exercise class. In some classes, you work out in shallow water with your head completely above water. In other water aerobic classes, you bob in deep water (with foam belt or life jacket).

The natural buoyancy of water helps you move -- so you can do exercises that would otherwise be painful. These exercises can be done with an instructor or physical therapist in a heated facility or in a backyard pool.

Studies from Spain indicate that water aerobics improves quality of life for women with fibromyalgia pain in the long-term. In one 12-week study, women who exercised in warm water -- for 60 minutes, 3 times a week -- reported improved physical and mental well-being. They also had less fibromyalgia pain and more vitality. As for their state of mind, they reported feeling less depressed, and more sociable.

"If we can get people to swim, do water aerobics, walk up stairs -- something that increases pulse rate, it will help a lot with their pain," Cope says. "We're talking 20 minutes, four times a week. That's all. It can make a big difference."