Using Exercise to Reduce Pain
As a massage therapist, I have heard many of my patients speak about how increasing their activity levels, reduces their body pain. Well it turns out that this isn’t just anecdotal information. A fourteen-year study of 866 runners aged 62 to 76 showed 25% less musculoskeletal pain in active participants versus a sedentary control group[i]. Why is this? Well, several things happen when you’re inactive. Your muscles lose strength and work less efficiently. Your risk of certain illnesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increases. Inactivity can increase fatigue, stress and anxiety as well. “Years ago, people who were in pain were told to rest,” says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “But now we know the exact opposite is true. When you rest, you become deconditioned — which may actually contribute to chronic pain.”
According to officials at the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise will:
- Prompt your body to release endorphins. These chemicals block pain signals from reaching your brain. Endorphins also help alleviate anxiety and depression — conditions that can make chronic pain more difficult to control.
- Help you build strength. The stronger your muscles, the more force and load you’ll take off your bones and cartilage — and the more relief you’ll feel.
- Increase your flexibility. Joints that can move through their full range of motion are less likely to be plagued with aches and pains.
- Improve your sleep quality. Regular exercise can lower your stress hormones, resulting in better sleep.
- Boost your energy level. Regular exercise can actually give you more energy to cope with chronic pain.
- Help you maintain a healthy weight. Exercise burns calories, which can help you drop excess pounds. This will reduce stress on your joints — another way to improve chronic pain.
- Enhance your mood. Exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to all your tissues, livening up your skin tones and nourishing your brain. These positive effects perpetuate themselves.
- Protect your heart and blood vessels. Exercise decreases the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
If you have been inactive for a while, the first step is to get started again. Depending on your physical condition, you may want to consult your physician first. By all means begin with baby steps to give your body time to adapt to the new activity levels. Find an activity that interests you and that doesn’t put you at substantial risk of injury. I have seen many people’s best intentions thwarted by injury, resulting a further setback. If you can’t exercise vigorously, or do impact exercises, you can still participate in activities such as Tai Chi, Yoga or Pilates. People are usually surprised to learn that some forms of yoga, such as Bikram (Hot) Yoga or Pilates are in fact extremely demanding, and constitute a complete, low impact exercise regime.
Whatever activity you choose, be sure to ultimately include strength training, aerobic activity and stretching into your exercise regime . These three areas are all important components of a well-rounded exercise program.