Exercising with Fibromyalgia

The need to exercise to improve fatigue and pain symptoms for fibromyalgia seems counterintuitive, but for me, exercise has made a dramatic difference in my energy and emotional well-being since I began trying to reincorporate exercise into my life. A year ago, I was probably lying on the couch, feeling lethargic and overwhelmed by how much pain I was in. I had been on part-time FMLA leave for a few months and mostly working from home. Going into the office was a draining, exhausting mess. I was struggling to increase my workload back to 32 hours a week and to manage general life demands. I had not yet been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, though I was certainly beginning to suspect it. At the time, I was more worried whether I could endure vacuuming, making dinner, eight hours of work, or sleeping through the night—never mind exercise! At this point last year, I was only just beginning to find some relief with medication. Exercise? Ha! No way!

I am so, so grateful to be where I am today, which includes daily exercise. I don’t remember the last time I skipped a workout of some kind, but it’s easily been since before October. I wanted to share how I’ve arrived at this place in my regular exercise while having fibromyalgia so that it may help someone else. Of course, I’m not a doctor; I’m just a woman trying to be as healthy as she can be despite her fibromyalgia. I’m also a woman who loves her research, and so when I first began trying to exercise again, I started by reading what the research suggested about exercising with a chronic disease.

Exercise is a critical component of improving the fatigue and pain symptoms of fibromyalgia, but exercising can also initially cause a flare in your symptoms… thus reducing the desire to start and maintain an exercise program. Why continue working out if the first workout caused a crash rather than a boost to your overall well-being? Faith, resilience, and determination—that’s why! When I read Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the recommendation was to start small and work yourself up to longer workouts, and countless websites repeat similar advice. Since I was used to doing 30+ minutes of HIIT workouts in the past, it was hard for me to start with only 8-12 minute workouts because I felt like it didn’t count. Well, each minute counts. Wherever you are, start there. Slowly increase your time at increments that your old self may have scoffed at. Don’t listen to your old self; your old self is a judgy grumpasaurus (at least mine can be).

After starting with my 8-12 minute workouts, I did begin increasing the duration of the workouts. My old impatience flared up a not insignificant number of times, which usually resulted in me moving backwards in lieu of where I had intended because I was pushing myself too hard. I vividly remember one workout where I collapsed on my mat at about the 10-minute mark after attempting a plank and not having the energy for it. As the video played on, I lay there and tried to fight feeling annoyed at myself for not having the energy that day to tackle the 30-minute workout I had planned. I ended up having to go back to bed for the rest of the day. Even with these setbacks, I made progress and learned to listen a little better when my body protested (and how to determine whether grumblings were legitimate complaints!). I also found workouts that worked for where I was physically and mentally, which was a real factor in my success.

I became an aficionado of JessicaSmithTV on YouTube. She offers so many workouts that I find challenging without being ridiculous burpee-fueled monstrosities. She offers so many workouts on her YouTube channel with a variety of durations that I believe there’s a workout for anyone. She’s positive and upbeat. Better yet, she offers many modifications throughout her workouts and builds up to the hardest iterations. Many times, she herself elects to do the middle-of-the-road iteration rather than the higher-intensity move, which makes me feel better about where I am physically. Her workouts are not designed for people with fibromyalgia or other chronic illnesses, but they are versatile enough to be infinitely adaptable to whichever health situation best describes you. If I’m having a rough pain or fatigue day, she has plenty of shorter workouts or even gentle stretching activities that I can choose to do. She has HIIT workouts, barre videos (among my favorites), strength training, and walking workouts, which are essentially aerobic workouts. She has five minute fixes or hour long endurance sessions. Basically, I’m a fan! You should be too!

If you do have fibromyalgia as I do, let me share some additional research-supported points I’ve found. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to alleviate the pain and fatigue related to fibromyalgia. Because exercise already has so many positive benefits, such as reducing stress and improving quality of sleep (both of which are significant factors in the severity of my own symptoms), maintaining a regular exercise program makes sense. Walking is a common recommended aerobic activity because it’s low impact and easy to begin and build up. A five-minute walk outside your house is good not only for your heart but also for your mind; in the Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal points out that even a five-minute encounter with nature strengthens your willpower.

Beyond walking, other common aerobic activities are bicycling or swimming (and I hate swimming!). Additional recommended activities typically include yoga or tai chi. Strength training, on the other hand, has mixed reviews. Some studies indicate that strength training can be beneficial (strong muscles, after all, improve aerobic function), but some doctors would advise against adopting a strength training regimen as Ginevra Liptan does in the Fibromanual. To me, it makes sense to have a balanced exercise program in place, and so I do strength training. As I did before and as the doctors who recommend strength training suggest, I started with 2-pound weights. They felt heavy then; they don’t now.

So where am I now exactly? Most days, I can bust out a 30-minute, more challenging workout and feel great! I will take my dog on a walk over lunch, take a stretch-out-stress break mid-morning and another quick mile walking break outside in the afternoon. So, I usually do a specific workout, 2-3 miles of walking, and a stretch break. I’ll call that good. Of course, most days is not every day. Some days, I wake up and just ache, ache, ache or fight fatigue more than I normally do. Those days, I switch to gentle yoga, choose a shorter workout, and/or make a judgment call on whether and how far to walk my dog. He usually gets walked, but not always. The point is that no matter how awful I feel, I can do something.

I’ve made so much progress, and part of that progress has come from pushing myself forward without comparing my current self to my past one. Part of that progress has also been respecting that a day is a low-energy day or choosing lighter workouts on days that I know will be tiring (e.g., any day spent on a plane and for a few days thereafter). I am neither weaker nor stronger than I used to be; I am both. I can respect that.

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