Despite all we know about its benefits, exercise can be very intimidating for some.
Current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for adults recommend either 150 minutes at a moderate-intensity or 75 minutes at vigorous-intensity or “an equivalent mix” of both intensities, plus 2 days of muscle strengthening activity. For those dealing with chronic pain or chronic disease, this can be especially daunting and exercise can seem frightening or even impossible.
However, for many managing these conditions, exercise can be not only possible but can help improve their condition! A review of 217 randomized controlled trials with 20,969 participants and 507 treatment groups was published in the Journal of Physiotherapy in 2021. They “found consistent, moderately strong evidence that exercise treatment was more effective than no treatment or usual care for the management of chronic low [back] pain”. Researchers noted that increased participation in most exercise treatments was associated with reduced pain and improved functional limitation outcomes. Participating in multiple exercise types seemed to give even better results.
For the best outcome, choose an exercise that you enjoy, will do regularly and is physically appropriate for your health condition and goals. Before starting a new exercise program or taking up a new sport, it’s important to consult with a health care provider and it is even more vital for those dealing with chronic pain/illness. This helps you make wise decisions about what activities to do, and not to do.
The Cleveland Clinic suggests starting small and gradually working up to your goals. For example, you may start with 10 minutes of walking – that’s fine. Start there and add more time and pick up the pace as you are able. Even a small increase in your activity levels will benefit your health.
Here are a few exercise options that may adapt well to the needs of those with chronic health conditions:
Pilates is often considered to be very similar to yoga. However, while yoga typically involves getting into a position (or pose) and holding it, Pilates has participants take a certain position/pose and then move arms or legs to engage the core muscles. The 2021 study mentioned above found Pilates to be the most effective of the activities reviewed. Researchers noted “a clinically important difference in pain intensity” compared to the other activities. Additionally, Pilates was associated with a larger reduction in functional limitations than most of the other activities.
Walking is a great way to get moving that is easy on both the wallet and the joints. You can get started with just a good pair of shoes. Walk around your home, your yard or neighborhood or branch out to local parks, civic centers, schools, and churches which may have walking tracks available for the public to use at little or no cost. One of the reasons that walking is good for those with chronic pain/illness is that it is low impact, so it’s easy on the joints, it can be done with or without supportive devices (i.e. walker or cane) and it can be done at any pace. A faster pace will render higher cardio benefits; however, even at a slower pace, walking can help promote blood flow, stimulate nerves, and strengthen muscles. Walking outdoors can also provide a mood-boosting dose of endorphins.
Walking is also a great gateway exercise. After building up strength and stamina walking, you may be able to progress to running or other more vigorous activities. Check in with your doctor before making a big change to ensure it’s a safe and beneficial option for you.
Swimming and other water exercises can provide a great whole-body workout. Since the human body will naturally float to some degree, a portion of the body weight is supported by the water. This takes pressure off of joints which is especially beneficial for those with conditions like arthritis. As it reduces weight pressure on joints, water also provides extra resistance, helping burn fat and strengthening the muscle. A stronger muscle is better able to support the joints, which can help reduce pain and prevent injury.
Originally a martial art focused on self-defense, Tai Chi is now often considered meditation in motion. Comprised of slow, gentle movements and deep breathing, it helps tone and stretch your muscles. Like the other activities listed above, it is low impact and therefore easy on the joints. By helping to strengthen muscles, Tai Chi can also provide benefits to the joints.
Yep, you read that correctly, weight-lifting can be a good exercise for those with chronic pain/illness. Routines incorporating the use of light to moderate hand weights, using resistance bands or even body weight activities all help build muscles. If you are new to this type of strengthening workout, talk to your doctor of chiropractic about simple weight activities you can do at home or at a workout facility that might benefit you. As there are risks when not using the correct form when weight-lifting, especially as the weights increase, your doctor may suggest that you work with a trainer for a few sessions to ensure you learn how to do the exercises properly. Using the correct technique with correct posture both maximizes your benefits and minimizes your risk of injury. That’s a win-win for sure!
What could be more fun than dancing your way to better health? Dancing has both physical and mental components and the movements are generally low impact, making it good for your joints and muscles. But a bonus is that following the choreography and step patterns helps improve your concentration and focus. Like walking, there is a wide range of intensity. From leisurely ballroom dancing to fast paced line dancing and from ballet to square dancing, you can select the type of music and style that best suits your preferences and health status. The social aspects of dancing can be very rewarding as well.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. That’s some serious staying power! There are several styles of yoga, but generally they all include focus on the body (poses and movement), mind (relaxation) and breath (breathwork). For beginners, especially whose with chronic conditions, you may look for videos or classes that offer Hatha, Iyengar or Restorative yoga progressions. Check out the chair yoga poses from The Clevelend Clinic.
Gaiam.com describes these styles and their unique benefits as:
- “HATHA – Hatha yoga is a generic term that refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. Nearly every type of yoga class taught in the West is Hatha yoga. When a class is marketed as Hatha, it generally means that you will get a gentle introduction to the most basic yoga postures. You probably won’t work up a sweat in a hatha yoga class, but you should end up leaving class feeling longer, looser, and more relaxed.
- IYENGAR – Iyengar yoga was developed and popularized by B.K.S. Iyengar (pronounced “eye-yen-gar”). Iyengar is a very meticulous style of yoga, with utmost attention paid to finding the proper alignment in a pose. In order to help each student find the proper alignment, an Iyengar studio will stock a wide array of yoga props — blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters are all common. There isn’t a lot of jumping around in Iyengar classes, so you won’t get your heart rate up, but you’ll be amazed to discover how physically and mentally challenging it is to stay put. Iyengar teachers must undergo a comprehensive training — if you have an injury or chronic condition, Iyengar is probably your best choice to ensure you get the knowledgeable instruction you need.
- RESTORATIVE – Restorative yoga is a delicious way to relax and soothe frayed nerves. Also described as yin yoga, restorative classes use bolsters, blankets, and blocks to prop students into passive poses so the body can experience the benefits of a pose without having to exert any effort. A good restorative class is more rejuvenating than a nap. Studios and gyms often offer them on Friday nights, when just about everyone could use some profound rest.”
Each person and their health status is unique. Your Doctor of Chiropractic is an excellent resource on finding the type of activities and exercise that would be most beneficial to you. If you are interested in an activity that you are not currently able to participate in, your chiropractor may be able to help you with a plan to strengthen your body to the point you would be able to participate. If it’s just not an option for you, your doctor may have suggestions for other activities you would enjoy that meets your health needs. If you don’t already have a chiropractor, you can find one near your home or work at tnchiro.com.
Bartlett, Dylan. 7 Sports You Can Play With Chronic Pain Pain Resource posted February 5, 2020. Accessed 6/1/2023 https://painresource.com/wellness/7-sports-you-can-play-with-chronic-pain/
Travers, Christopher MS. Living With a Chronic Disease? 4 Best Tips for Exercising Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and Fitness posted March 7, 2017. Accessed 6/1/2023. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/living-with-a-chronic-disease-4-best-tips-for-exercising/
Hayden JA, Ellis J, Ogilvie R, Stewart SA, Bagg MK, Stanojevic S, Yamato TP, Saragiotto BT. Some types of exercise are more effective than others in people with chronic low back pain: a network meta-analysis. J Physiother. 2021 Oct;67(4):252-262. doi: 10.1016/j.jphys.2021.09.004. Epub 2021 Sep 16. PMID: 34538747.
Cleveland Clinic Health 12 Yoga Poses You Can Do Wherever You’re Working Cleveland Clinic Wellness posted Nov. 24, 2020. Accessed 6/1/2023. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/12-yoga-poses-can-work/
WebMD Editorial Contributors. Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 22, 2021. Difference Between Pilates and Yoga Accessed 6/1/2023. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/difference-between-pilates-and-yoga#:~:text=for%20your%20health.-,What%20Is%20Pilates%3F,moving%20your%20arms%20or%20legs.