Fitness Articles

Exercising with Fibromyalgia

The Best Exercises for People with Chronic Pain

By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer         
Page 1 of 4
Fibromyalgia is a mysterious condition, characterized by long-term pain throughout the body. In many cases, it is accompanied by tenderness and swelling in the joints, muscles or other soft tissues (known as "tender points"). Fibromyalgia appears to affect the way the brain processes pain signals, lowering the threshold for pain and increasing sensitivity in people with the condition. While the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, there are specific factors thought to trigger it. In some cases, symptoms begin after a physical or emotional trauma, infection or surgery. In other cases, symptoms build over time with no known cause. Fibromyalgia is most common in women between the ages of 20 and 50. In fact, 80% of people diagnosed with fibromyalgia are women.
Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Fibromyalgia is a syndrome—not a disease. A syndrome is defined as a group of signs and symptoms that together are indicative of a specific disease or disorder, but have no identifiable cause. Although the cause of the syndrome is unclear, the day-to-day effects for someone living with fibromyalgia can follow a very clear pattern. Flare-ups of symptoms come and go, more frequently for some people than others, and when they do, patients tend to wake up feeling stiff and sore. Some say the pain gets better as the day goes on but worsens at night. Others have pain throughout the entire day. Fibromyalgia pain can worsen with physical activity, changes in weather (cold and damp conditions are usually the worst) and stress.
A 2007 survey published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders asked more than 2,500 participants who had fibromyalgia about their ability to perform daily activities. According to the survey:
  • 35% had difficulty completing normal activities of daily living
  • 55% reported having trouble walking two blocks
  • 62% found it difficult to climb stairs, and
  • 68% had trouble with light household duties.
Living with fibromyalgia is a real challenge. Because of the severity of symptoms, people with fibromyalgia tend to be less physically active than healthy people of the same age. But that doesn't mean that exercise is out of the question. Here's what you need to know about how exercise affects fibromyalgia symptoms—plus tips to maintain a consistent routine.
Exercise Can Be an Effective Treatment for Fibromyalgia
Although strenuous physical activity can worsen fibromyalgia symptoms during flare-ups, exercise is often the first line of treatment to help reduce the frequency of flare-ups. However, sticking to a consistent exercise routine can be difficult because of fibromyalgia symptoms. Before starting any exercise program, it’s important to get clearance from your doctor and ask for their recommendations about what exercise is safe and what you should avoid.   
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

    I read a few of the comments on here and like any disorder or disease I have found that Fibro affects each of us differently. Doctors are unsure what causes Fibro and are treating the symptoms to help us live a better life. Like the disorder/disease each doctor is different. I can only say that we all need to find the best treatment for ourselves. I have talked to people in wheel chairs and others who are able to live a fairly normal life.

    Like diabetes, so treatments work for one person and not another. My advice is find a doctor who listens and do what is best for you. Because one person is able to do more than you does not make them better than you. We are all different and need to realize that with our differences our treatments will be different.

    Don't let those who don't understand you or your pain discount how you feel. Only you know how you feel and only you and your doctor know what is best for you. - 12/12/2015 12:10:40 AM
  • I like this article but tend to take offense a little about the syndrome comment, even though it isn't the authors fault. It says: "A syndrome is defined as a group of signs and symptoms that together are indicative of a specific disease or disorder, but have no identifiable cause." There are many diseases that have no identifiable least originally, and I feel that Fibromyalgia is only called a syndrome because doctors don't know, and have refused to know, the cause and treatment for it. It minimizes the suffering to call it a syndrome, and it is only called a syndrome because medical science doesn't know enough about it yet. I'm sure this has been the case for many diseases in the past until they were more completely understood. - 7/2/2015 9:12:08 AM
    This article was well done and the advice rings true! I have had FMS for 20 years (now exacerbated by spinal arthritis) and have found moderate exercise the key to staying sane. It helps to really listen to your body and not push hard with exercise on bad days, However, sitting for long periods and relying on pain medication to stay functional did not work for me. Weaning off Tramadol (I used it for years) was difficult to say the least. I find that a short period of physical activity (5-10 minutes) out of every waking hour really helps when dealing with a "flare up". A hot tub that is not too hot (90-98 degrees) is also very soothing. A good 45 minute walk most days goes a long way to easing the pain of FMS. My heart goes out to each person struggling with this perplexing disease, but there is more hope now in finding real help than there was 20 years ago when many in the medical field (including myself) thought it was a psychosomatic problem.
    - 5/23/2015 3:21:31 PM
  • Thank you for all the information! - 6/16/2013 7:58:25 AM
  • It is a Thyroid disorder and fixable!! GO TO THYROIDANSWER.COM and get this book free. He explains why hypothyroid causes all these symptoms plus many more. With all the cheap flouride in our water supply, cooking food in microwave with plastics, all the chemicals in our food...most get this when older. Going by just the TSH is crazy. I had ALL these symptoms back in 2001 and after getting on bio identical hormones and Armour thyroid, I feel great with no pain what so ever. I am 62 and can do 1 1/2 hours of spin class, plus body pump with weights and care for a active 2+year old while her mom is at work. Also go to YouTube and search fibromalgia Dr. Hotze and tons of info comes up. Look at least at this one:http://www.yo
    ch?v=DAmsLFe-drg I hope this helps everyone. - 6/13/2013 8:16:28 PM
  • I was diagnosed in the late '90's. They didn't know as much about it then as they do now. My dr. told me she could prescribe any kind of pain pill I wanted, but the best medicine is exercise! I started out with walking, then I started using a stretchie band or tube. Now I do all kinds of different types of workouts...includ
    ing HIIT! Listen to your body. On those days where I feel uncomfortable and tired, I just do a walk or pilates/yoga. I take Savella 4 x's a day as well. I'm never ever pain free but I feel so much better now than I did in my 20's. The fatigue though...grrr! - 6/13/2013 2:49:39 PM
    Thank You, SP, for this article. I've had "Fibro" for at least 13 years (was diagnosed in 2000), but probably had it even longer than this. Between this and the 2 spinal fusions, I don't exercise at all. There's no way that I can kneel or even lay down on the floor. But this article has given me the encouragement to try SOMETHING in the way of exercise, which I know is needed.

    And for MOMMYTO3PLUS: I am also beginning to realize that there are many things that should be eliminated from our food intake. I hate the fact that MSG & soy are so widely used. Another route that I am trying to follow is the elimination of wheat & it's partners. If you can get a hold of the book, "Wheat Belly" , you will learn a lot of things. When I cut down on those carbs, it makes a difference against my pain. No one thing will ever eliminate Fibro pain 100%, but every little bit helps. Everyone of us is affected differently, and it takes a long time to learn what works for our bodies.

    Please note: The above paragraph is NOT intended to be a slam against what Spark People has here. Weight loss helps everyone: those with arthritis, heart problems, RA, Fibromyalgia, autoimmune conditions, and those being just plain overweight.

    Also, Thank You, SP for mentioning the fact that there is a TEAM for those that suffer from Fibromyalgia right here. I was surprised about this, and at the number of people that belong to that TEAM....WOW!

    Again, a Great informative article!

    - 6/13/2013 12:29:10 PM
    This is a great article for all sorts of things that cause pain, not just fibromyalgia! Thanks so much for the information! - 6/13/2013 10:16:34 AM
  • Good article. However, there is no mention of a symptom that some people with fibro have which is post exertional malaise. When on exerts oneself either mentally or physically, one has feels like they have the flu for a day or so. I know from personal experience. If you experience this symptom, reduce your workout to a point where you don't feel ill and slowly increase your workout time. Note the word slowly. - 6/13/2013 8:51:02 AM
  • I also have R A so what's good for one is not for the other now today is not a good day everything is swollen - 6/8/2013 8:53:43 AM
  • Thanks Jen!!
    This article reiterated many of the things that I already knew but it was encouraging to me. I have found that exercise is a great help in dealing with my fibromyalgia. When I was first diagnosed I was so afraid exercise would make me worse and in fact the opposite is true. I ride a recumbent exercise bike, lift light weights 2 days a week and do a set of core body exercises and stretching and find the combination of these have been beneficial both for my pain and for my health. There are times when a flare will stop me in my tracks for a while but when things calm down I get back to my exercise routine as soon as my body allow.
    Again thanks for a very clear article and exercise and fibromyalgia.
    Barb - 5/15/2013 11:49:52 PM
  • So glad I saw this article, I wish I would have seen it back in 2010 when I was diagnosed. There was absolutely nothing then. - 5/15/2013 6:55:40 PM
  • I find that walking helps my stiffness a lot! I walk about 6 miles or more daily and am really feeling good when I do it! I also have incorporated weightlifting (light weights) into my workouts and find that the strength training is helping me as well. There are a lot of things to do to help fight this problem and diet changes also help. Im glad that taking a more nutritious and active approach is making those of us that suffer with this feel better!

    - 5/15/2013 6:31:29 PM
  • thank you. - 5/15/2013 6:17:19 PM
  • For Gwendo51, there are countless exercises one can do without getting down on the floor. I too had difficulty getting on floor although with practice I have overcome. When I first got my knee replacements, it was impossible.
    Even on the most painful days when I have a really bad day, there is always something I can do to get in some exercise.
    I am glad the article mentions the symptoms can be vastly different , so there is no one way to handle Fibro. Each person has their own threshold of pain and tolerance.
    Hopefully one can work with a good understanding doctor and get some relief.
    There are days when pain pills are needed, but exercise, weight loss and feeling positive has been my saving grace. Water exercises even if it's just walking back and forth in a pool has done wonders to ease painful joints.
    Tisha - 5/15/2013 4:30:54 PM

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