Fibromyalgia and Exercise

By Karen Lee Richards

In the early years following my fibromyalgia diagnosis, when doctors and others suggested I should be exercising, I wanted to smack them.  (Would that count as exercise?)  After all, it hurt to move.  Why would I want to add to my pain by exercising? 

Eventually, though, I learned several important things about fibromyalgia and exercise:

  The word exercise needs to be redefined for people with FM.

  It is essential to start very slowly and gradually increase activity.

  I can't compare myself with someone else.  I need to set my own individualized goals.

  There are certain movements and exercises I should not do.

  Although I may experience a temporary increase in pain and fatigue, in the long run, exercise reduces my pain, increases my energy and helps me sleep better. 


Redefining Exercise

Having been a ballet dancer, my idea of exercise was at least a one-hour intense workout.  It's not surprising that I reacted so strongly when people suggested that I exercise.  I suspect many of is think of exercise as an aerobics class or jogging for a couple of miles.  But if you have FM, exercise needs to take on an entirely different meaning. 

The person who most helped me redefine exercise was the FM and ME/CFS researcher and clinician Dr. Charles Lapp.  He told me that people with FM would do better to think of exercise as movement.  For some, walking to the mailbox may be all the “exercise” they can handle at first.  But the important thing is to move.  Inactivity, whether it is lying down or sitting, will actually increase your FM pain.  For example, most of us have a lot of stiffness and pain when we first get up in the morning from lying in bed for several hours through the night.  During the day, it's essential to move frequently – even if it's just to walk to another room and back. 

Starting Slowly

Again, we need to set aside our pre-conceived ideas about how long we should exercise.  Most things you read will tell you to start with at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise.  But if you haven't been exercising at all, that may be way too much for you.  If you overdo it and trigger a flare, you're going to be much less likely to try again.  It's much better to start with something like two minutes and gradually increase the length of time as you're able. 

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