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, but realize that you and your body are capable. There’s always something you can do!

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 lessen how sore you feel after a bout of exercise, consider starting with smaller “doses” of exercise where you slowly build up the intensity and length of the workout over several months.

Some ways to do this:

  • Start with shorter strength sessions that are 30 minutes long with lower reps (e.g. 2 rounds of 7 to 9 repetitions of an exercise versus the more traditional 3 rounds of 10-15 repetitions of the exercise)
  • Break up your cardio or low grade activity throughout the day. Maybe 30 minutes of walking or biking feels like too much, but you may be able to handle two 15 minute bouts a day.
  • Start with 2 short workouts a week, see how it feels, and then build from there.

Focus on what feels good.

Regardless of what type program you follow, you should choose your intensity level based on what feels good to your body. This might mean stopping before you’re tired, seeing how you feel the next day, and then adding a little more the next time.

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 “dose” and mix of exercise that works best for you.

Incorporate self-care.

If everything hurts, exercise can be daunting, so you may want to consider restorative work, such as somatic movement, gentle stretching, breath work, or foam rolling alongside 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 before or after your workout.
  • Epsom salt baths
  • Having some favorite stretches or go-to movements that you do every morning to feel less creaky.

Consistency is more important than intensity. Especially in the beginning.

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 over several weeks and months.

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.