Fibromyalgia patients commonly experience a set of issues referred to as cardiovascular dysregulation, during which blood flow to skin and resting muscles is restricted, which can make these areas hypersensitive to pain. Regular aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise has been showed to increase circulation, thereby helping to reduce pain. But lower-impact cardio options (think swimming, biking, elliptical training and walking) are better options than high-impact cardio (running, jumping rope, plyometrics). Because water exercise (swimming, water aerobics, water running) is so easy on the joints and the water can provide a calming, soothing effect, it's an especially good option for people with fibromyalgia. In general, 2-3 sessions of aerobic exercise each week for 30-60 minutes (work your way up slowly over time) seems to lessen pain in many patients. Using the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is a good way to measure the intensity of your workout (rather than aiming for specific heart rate guidelines), because it’s based on how hard you feel able to work each day—and that may change greatly from day to day when you have fibromyalgia.
Resistance (strength) training, using proper progressions and techniques, has been show to improve pain tolerance in fibromyalgia patients as well. Strength training also helps preserve the strength and muscle mass naturally lost as we age, which tends to happen more quickly in fibromyalgia patients (likely due to inactivity). Two sessions per week of full-body strength training (which can be completed in 15-20 minutes) can help reduce symptoms. For strength training ideas you can do at home with little to no equipment, check out SparkPeople's Workout Generator.
Mind-body exercises, such as tai chi, yoga and Pilates have been shown to improve pain symptoms for people with fibromyalgia in self-reported questionnaires. The meditation and breathing activities combined with the low-impact strength and flexibility exercises of these activities have a string of beneficial effects. Although these activities won’t replace traditional aerobic or resistance training, they can be a good supplemental activity a few times each week, or a great place to start if you're new to exercise.
Exercise is often just one piece of the prescription for fibromyalgia patients. Often, a regular exercise routine (that includes aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility training) combined with medication, relaxation training, and other forms of pain management are used to treat the condition.
Tips for Sticking with an Exercise Routine Despite Difficulties
There may be times when exercise is out of the question because of a significant flare-up. But for those times when it’s just hard to find the motivation to get off the couch and get moving, how do you stick with it and keep a consistent exercise routine?