How to exercise for fibromyalgia

One of the best parts of my job is being able to give clients who are in pain and relatively pain free movement experience. My ability to do this has come from several years of extensive study of modalities including Pilates, massage therapy and post rehab techniques.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder that is associated with whole body pain and fatigue. Since it is a chronic condition, it can make starting an exercise or self-care program feel daunting, since over-exertion can make the symptoms worse.

In my private practice, I’ve worked with many clients with fibromyalgia to create self-care and exercise programs to build strength and stamina and to manage pain symptoms.

I know that not everyone has access to or the funds to work with a trainer to build a program to fit their needs, so I’ve included some suggestions below on how to exercise for fibromyalgia that can be applied to any at home program.

Start slow and be gentle.

If you have fibromyalgia, then there is a good chance that your sensory nervous system will be more easily stimulated (and in some cases overwhelmed) by exercise. To avoid overloading your system and intensifying sensations of pain, it’s ideal to start with short, gentle exercise sessions and to slowly build up the intensity and length of the workout over several months.

While most exercise sessions last an hour, you may want to start with just a 30-minute session or appointment if you are working with a trainer. Plan on doing an extended warm-up and cool down, so your body has a chance to adapt to the new movements.

At first you might not feel like much is happening, but that’s okay! Remember, that more sensation does not necessarily equate with greater results and exercise without greater pain is a big achievement. The goal should be to slowly increase your stamina and the load that your body can manage without creating an uptick in symptoms.

If you are consistent in your practice and moderately continue to increase challenge, you will find that in the long run not only can you do more, but you may also have less pain.

Focus on what feels good.

Right now high intensity exercise programs that focus on “smashing” your body like CrossFit and Tabata are very in vogue. However, it’s entirely possible to build strength and endurance in a way that won’t leave you sore and hurting.

Regardless of what type program you follow, you should choose your intensity level based on what feels good to your body. If everything already hurts, you won’t want to create further pain sensations. Some easily modifiable programs that focus on alignment and strength-based work include Pilates, functional bodyweight training and certain styles of yoga.

If you are looking to add a cardiovascular component to your routine, consider starting with something relatively low impact like walking, swimming or biking and if all goes well then over time you can increase intensity. Just keep in mind that you may want to plan on an extended warm-up and cool down with a shorter work period, which should leave you less likely to experience pain afterwards.

If you find that over time your body is able to tolerate bodyweight exercises or gentle to moderate loads from resistance bands or spring tension as used on the Pilates equipment, then you can consider starting to introduce more challenging loads and more intense forms of exercise.

In the case of fibromyalgia, everyone’s body will react differently to new exercise. Give yourself permission to try different things, so you can find the best mix of exercises that work for you.

Incorporate self-care.

If everything hurts, exercise can be daunting. A self-care program like a gentle yoga, Pilates or stretching routine is a lovely way to prepare your body for more traditional exercise. Oftentimes, these simple techniques can be used to manage and reduce pain symptoms, which will make exercise more accessible and enjoyable!

A self-care program can be used as a precursor to exercise or can be introduced in conjunction with a new exercise program. I find it can be a nice thing to do as a warm-up or cool down to a Pilates, weights or walking program. It’s also something that can be done on recovery days.

Some examples of how you can incorporate self-care into your day include:

– Doing a 15 minute restorative yoga sequence or foam rolling after a Pilates or bodyweight workout.

– Doing some gentle Pilates stretches like book openers, cat cows and arm scissors first thing in the morning. You can check out my Instagram for more exercise ideas and inspiration.

Be consistent.

Remember, this is just the beginning of your journey. I’ve worked with many clients who’ve had years of pain, but have experienced a remarkable decrease in symptoms by slowly, but consistently adding more movement to their week.

Starting an exercise program doesn’t have to be overwhelming and it should be tailored to your needs. I absolutely understand the desire to start hard and fast, but working this way tends to decrease the odds of sticking with a program, because it is more likely to increase fatigue and joint pain.

Instead, choose a program that meets you where you are today. Results don’t come from doing the biggest, baddest, hardest thing. They come from consistent practice and moderate exercise progressions over longer periods of time.

Building fitness is a little like a long-term financial investment. You’re not apt to see dramatic results in the beginning, but if you reflect back on it down the line, you’ll be amazed at how much these small acts of movement can add up.