How do you know if it’s okay to exercise when you suffer with chronic pain?
What exercise is safe?
How much pain is normal when you exercise?
These are questions that are often asked by thousands of people at our Move it or Lose it exercise classes. Of course, there’s no simple answer as each person is unique, but here are some simple guidelines to help you to stay active if you suffer with chronic pain.
Pain is your natural warning system; it tells you to stop doing something when it hurts to protect you from injury. There is a difference between the type of acute pain you have when you strain a muscle and the kind of chronic pain you have with say, osteoarthritis.
This is also different to DOMS – delayed onset of muscle soreness – which you may experience after overdoing it in the garden or a heavy workout. After a few days the aches and pains subside and it teaches you to moderate the intensity of your exercise (or to get a gardener)!
Chronic pain is pain that has lasted for three months or longer despite medication or treatment. It affects about 28 million people in the UK and 62% of those over the age of 75. The causes are varied and numerous with some of the most common being arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia or back pain. This is why it’s really important to seek advice from a medical professional to find out what the cause of your pain is before starting any exercise programme. Once established, ask your doctor or physiotherapist if there are any exercises you should avoid.
Sometimes you may need to see a physiotherapist and do specific exercises at home for a few weeks to build up strength or mobility. As anyone who has ever been through physiotherapy knows, it’s often painful doing the exercises but once you’ve been reassured that they are safe, you stick at it knowing that you’re working towards recovery and less pain in the long run.
One of the biggest problems is continuing to exercise when you’re not ‘accountable’. As physiotherapist Laura Kent explains, “We usually give 6 weeks of physiotherapy and then rely on people continuing alone afterwards. The worst thing they can do is go home, sit down and undo all the hard work. So we encourage many people to go to group exercise classes, such as Move it or Lose it, and incorporates strength and balance which is vital for maintaining function and independence as we age.”
Whatever you enjoy doing make sure you start off slowly. All activity is good; walking, dancing, stair climbing and gardening all count. Remember to listen to your body when exercising and stop if you experience sudden pain.
Of the thousands of people I’ve helped to be more active, the vast majority find their pain is improved by exercise. Kathleen, aged 86, says, “I’m much worse when I don’t come to the class. Although it hurts when I exercise, it’s a different kind of pain, a good pain, as I know I’ll feel better afterwards. If I sit and do nothing then I’m in agony so that’s my incentive to keep moving.”
All the exercises in a Move it or Lose it class – flexibility, aerobic, balance and strength – can be adapted to suit you and can be done seated or standing. For many it’s reassuring to know there’s a chair available if it’s needed. Why not see if there’s a class near you on our class finder.
You can also ask your doctor about attending a pain clinic or accessing a pain management programme; there’s more helpful advice online from the British Pain Society – https://www.britishpainsociety.org/