Pain relief through exercise

Exercise is the last thing you want to do when you feel pain, right? Consider this: exercise may reduce pain. It gets adrenaline flowing, the endorphins kick in, and fresh oxygen is delivered to the muscle groups. All of this can do both your body and mind a world of good. If you have let your exercise slip, read on. You may discover some feeling-good, or at least some feeling-better, strategies. Exercising your way through pain can sometimes bring pleasantly surprising results.

Exercise excuses

When you don’t feel well, excuses go a long way to stop exercising. Do these sound familiar?

“I don’t feel like it!”

It can be a vicious cycle: you don’t feel well; you don’t feel like moving; you don’t move. Ultimately, you may be robbing yourself of one of the key ways to feel better. The National Pain Foundation and the Mayo Clinic report that lack of exercise can harm your physical and mental health. You may lose muscle tone and strength, your heart and lungs may work less efficiently, and your pain can increase.

“I’m too tired!”

There are times when what you need most is sleep. At those times, sleep! If you feel sluggish, however, consider that sluggishness can result from lack of movement. The less you move, the more sluggish you feel, and the less you want to move.

“I have no time!”

How do you break the cycle? Start easy. Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. Begin with a short exercise like a 10-minute walk, or a 10-minute exercise in your living room with music. You will be surprised how much you’ll want to keep the good feeling. Pace yourself. It’s better to exercise three times a week for 10 minutes, than once a week for 1 hour, and then not again for months. Set small, achievable goals and enjoy your progress.

“I have no one to exercise with and I can’t get motivated.”

If this sounds like you, ask a friend or neighbor to join you once a week. If you have someone in mind but you aren’t sure, ask. You might hear “Yes, I’d love to!” You may find exercising together too enjoyable for only once a week.

“I lose track of my goal without a regular reminder.”

If you don’t have someone to exercise with and you need a regular reminder, make an appointment with yourself on your calendar. Adding it to your calendar and seeing it again is the next best thing to getting the phone call from your buddy.

“It is not my thing.”

Exercise is just not your thing. Remember, the human body was designed to move. When it does not move, it atrophies. Atrophy means the degeneration or “wasting away” of skin, tissue, muscle or bone, and your pain can increase too.

“Physical exercise is not how I relax. I need to talk to someone.”

If this sounds familiar, try both. Physical exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel good. Talking with someone after a workout can be more productive as you’ll likely have more positive thoughts.

Exercise your options

What are your exercise options? There are three types of exercise: aerobic, strengthening, and flexibility. All can help. Choose one type or a combination. Always talk with your physician, or physical therapist, before you start.

  • Aerobic. Aerobic exercise increases heart rate for a prolonged period. Increasing your heart rate 20 minutes a day, four times a week is a great long-term goal. Like any activity, starting is half the battle. Start with what is manageable. You’ll be more successful with achievable goals, rather than becoming disappointed because you were overeager and can’t keep up. If it causes pain, stop and tell your physician. You may not be able to do all kinds of aerobic activity, but there is likely something you can do.

  • Strengthening. Maintaining your weight and exercising your muscles with strength and resistance training keep your bones healthy. As you increase muscle mass, you improve coordination and prevent injury. Strength training and weight management keep your joints lubricated and not over-taxed with excess weight.

  • Flexibility. Stretching exercises are a good way to ease into program. Some good stretches are relaxing and can be done while watching TV or taking a short work break. The benefits are great, decreasing pain by increasing flexibility. Stretching exercises are most effective when done daily, are a pleasant activity to look forward to, and can prevent injury when done before a workout.

Get moving

Ask your provider for help designing an exercise program with the right level and amount of stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercises. Swimming, biking, and walking are easy and good choices for most people. Relaxation exercise, like tai chi and yoga, may help you to deal with stress.

Many people worry that they’ll hurt themselves and make their pain worse through exercise. With proper direction from your provider, you can safely exercise and improve your physical condition and emotional well-being. Regular exercise eases pain for many people. Whatever program you choose, getting into a routine makes it easier to keep it going. Make the choice to keep yourself in as good physical condition as you can.


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Thayer, R., Newman, J.R., & McClain, T. (1994). Self-regulation of mood: strategies for changing a bad mood, raising energy, and reducing tension. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(5), 910–25.