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Moving through chronic pain

If you’ve been living with chronic pain for a while, you’ve undoubtedly been given the advice to exercise more. And that advice might have made no sense. 

“If I’m hurting, being active is the last thing I want to do.” 

When you’re in pain, every instinct tells you to prioritize rest and recovery. Your brain is looking out for you because pain can often mean injury. In the case of a recent injury, rest and decreased activity are the right steps to take.

But what do you do with chronic pain, which plays by its own set of unique, often-hard-to-understand rules?

What research tells us about physical activity and chronic low back pain

Researchers have found that increasing physical activity levels is therapeutic and helpful for people living with chronic pain. Of course, it’s not a standalone treatment or “quick-fix” cure, but it’s an important part of a pain management plan. 

On the flip side, a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for developing chronic pain. 

Pain is often inseparable from the impact it has on your life. The more intense your pain, the tougher it is to work, complete daily activities, and enjoy family/social time. Increasing activity levels increases functional abilities, meaning pain has less of an impact on your life.

As strange as it may seem, when pain persists for a long period of time, it’s even more important to be physically active. That doesn’t mean returning to a previous level of activity right away. 

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What type of activity should you start with?

Start slowly and gradually with activity that is accessible and doable for you. Popular options are walking, water-based exercise, yoga and stretching, Tai Chi, muscle-strengthening, riding a bike, or dance. 

It’s not as important what you choose, but rather that you start moving and building up your activity levels gradually. If you’re wondering how much to start with, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How much of this activity can I do when I’m feeling good?
  2. How much of this activity can I do when pain levels are higher?

Your starting point is those two numbers added together and divided by two. For example, if Cynthia can walk for 30 minutes on lower pain days, but only 10 minutes on increased pain days, she would start with 20 minutes of walking each day. Exercise duration should be consistent each day, instead of fluctuating up or down according to pain levels. 

As you start moving more, plan to take a break every few minutes to check in with your body. For example, if Cynthia is walking for 20 minutes, she would take a break every 5 minutes for a minute or so. 

Each week, add a few minutes to your total activity until you’ve reached your goal. Consistency and gradual progress will ensure your success and ability to accomplish your goals. Some people find it helpful to keep an exercise journal to track progress.

Join our challenge!

Join our two-week online challenge if you are looking to increase physical activity. This challenge is specifically designed for anyone living with chronic low back pain who would like to be supported in their effort to start moving more.

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What to expect when increasing physical activity

Trying a new type of exercise or returning to an old favorite can cause soreness for a day or two afterward. This is entirely normal and doesn’t mean you’ve caused damage or harm to your body. 

Soreness is simply a sign that your body has been challenged with more activity or different activity. Continue to focus on slow, gradual progress and listening to how your body feels. A minor increase in pain is normal when you first start moving more, and rest assured that it’ll pass. 

Physical activity has one huge advantage over other approaches for pain relief – it’s beneficial for your whole body. Physical activity promotes:

  • The brain to release feel-good chemicals to boost mood and quiet down pain
  • Confidence in your body and reassurance that movement is safe
  • Increased immune function
  • Lowered stress levels
  • More regular sleep patterns
  • Decreased body weight
  • Improved circulation 
  • Provides lubrication for joints

The only question left is: are you ready to get started? 

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