Louise Chang, MD
Take it from a Cincinnati, Ohio, mother of six, Pat Holthaun: Exercise may
be the last thing you feel like doing if you have fibromyalgia, but it’s also
one of the best things you can do to decrease pain.
Like many people, when Holthaun was diagnosed with the widespread pain
disorder several years ago, she took up residence on her couch -- unwilling to
even think about getting up and moving. But two years ago, the 72-year-old
finally decided to take her doctor’s advice and enroll in a warm water aerobics
“I just love it,” she says. “It’s such an enjoyable thing, and I am so much
more limber and stronger now.” She likes it so much, she now does water
aerobics three times a week.
Holthaun is on to something. Along with medication and education about
fibromyalgia, exercise plays a critical role in managing the disease.
“Exercise improves a person’s overall sense of well-being and reduces pain
and tenderness over time,” says Lesley M. Arnold, M.D. a psychiatrist and
fibromyalgia expert at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in
Ohio. “We try to pace it slowly and make sure that their symptoms of pain and
fatigue are under control before we introduce it.”
The first step is typically an assessment of the person’s current fitness
level. “We like to start them on a program that is a level or two below their
current level, improve their stamina, and build up to 20 to 30 minutes of
moderate aerobic activity on most days of the week,” Arnold tells WebMD. “We
really encourage them to pace things and set reasonable goals.”
For people with fibromyalgia, low-impact aerobics is the way to go. “We
really like an aerobic water class and people tend to go back,” Arnold
The research backs her up. A study in Arthritis Research &
Therapy found that water aerobics improve health-related quality of life in
women with fibromyalgia.
These classes often start in warm-water pools, which can be soothing. What’s
more, they are typically group-based, so people can garner support and
motivation from other members of the group. Holthaun says that this helps
people stick to a program. “People with fibromyalgia tend to isolate, but being
in a group helps motivation,” she says.
What if you don’t have access to a pool? Don’t despair: Walking, biking, and
other forms of low-impact aerobic activity also provide benefits. “Grab a
buddy, take a class, or look into physical therapy,” Arnold suggests.
And don’t rule out strength training. Although doctors once believed that
strength training could worsen pain in people with fibromyalgia, new research
suggests that this is not the case. In fact, the latest research -- presented
at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in
Orlando -- suggests that strength training can have the same ameliorating
effect on pain as aerobic exercise.
Lynne Matallana, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia
Association in Anaheim, Calif., says the benefits of exercise for people with
the condition are tremendous. “This has been shown scientifically and
anecdotally,” she says.
Matallana’s own experience has shown her that exercise can also soothe the
mind. A former dancer, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1995. “I have
watched how exercise has improved my symptoms and my overall outlook,” she
says. “When I got in water, I could do movements that were almost like dance.
That touched my soul again.”
Let’s face it: It may hurt just to think about going from couch potato to
marathon runner. To avoid getting overwhelmed, take it in stages.
“If you have fibromyalgia, you have this amplified pain signal telling you
that something is wrong,” Mattalana says. “It’s a natural instinct to want to
protect your body by going to bed, but that actually makes pain worse.”
Try these two tips to get your mind on board:
In the beginning, Mattalana scoffed at the thought of doing only three
minutes on the treadmill, but it wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. “I
slowly got my body conditioned and got to a point where I could add more
exercise,” she says. “It is a slow process, but every time you get up, stretch,
walk, get into a pool, or take a yoga class, you are one step closer to feeling
“Once you convince people to start exercising, they become believers,” says
Daniel J. Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology and medicine at the University
of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It’s not until they do it and see how much it helps
that they embrace it.”
How long does that usually take? “Some people will notice changes right
away, but for others, it may take a couple of weeks,” he says.
Exercise is not a panacea for fibromyalgia, Clauw says. But, he says, “it
works in more people than anything else. I can’t remember an instance where
someone got into an exercise program and didn’t notice a significant
improvement in symptoms.”
SOURCES:Gusi, N. Arthritis Research & Therapy, Feb. 21, 2008; online
edition.Hooten, W.M. Presentation A1553, American Society of Anesthesiologists,
Orlando, Oct. 18-22, 2008.Pat Holthaun, Cincinnati, Ohio.Lesley M. Arnold, MD, professor of psychiatry and director, Women’s Health
Research Project, Cincinnati College of Medicine, Ohio.Lynne Matallana, president and founder, National Fibromyalgia Association,
Anaheim, Calif.Daniel J. Clauw, MD, professor of anesthesiology and medicine, University of
Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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