Moderate exercise such as walking just twice a week can reduce pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia without making joints feel worse, according to a new study published in Arthritis Care & Research.
While previous studies have shown short term benefits from exercise, fibromyalgia sufferers often fail to keep up with exercise programs out of fear that it will worsen pain. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to researchers.
“They’re more worried that it’s going to be painful, but that’s more of a psychological effect,” said lead author Anthony Kaleth, PhD, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
“One of the best known therapeutic activities for fibromyalgia patients is exercise. Our study confirmed that result.”
Researchers recruited 170 people for the study who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, had been on medication for the condition for at least a month and reported low levels of physical activity.
They each received a personalized aerobic exercise program based on their current fitness level, which usually meant walking around a track.
Over the next three months, the exercise programs gradually increased in intensity from twice weekly 10-minute sessions to up to four weekly 30-minute sessions of moderate exercise that achieved 60 percent of maximum heart rate.
During the study and six months after it ended, participants reported their activity levels in a questionnaire — assessing how their fibromyalgia symptoms changed, including muscle impairment, overall well-being, pain levels, and depression.
Twenty-seven participants (16%) said they continued to exercise after nine months; 68 people (40%) increased their workouts for three months, but then reduced them; and 75 of the participants (44%) said they were no more active than when they started.
The two groups that exercised reported less physical impairment and better overall well-being than those who did not increase their activity.
A steady increase in exercise intensity was also linked to a slight decrease in pain. Depression levels did not change in any group.
The study found that any increase in activity, whether or not it was maintained, resulted in positive changes in symptoms and no increase pain. And researchers believe if they had followed the participants for a longer period of time, they might have seen even more benefits for people who continued to exercise.
A recent study found that a traditional Chinese meditative exercise significantly reduces pain caused by fibromyalgia in as little as 8 weeks. The routine practice of Qigong also showed sustained benefits in sleep, fatigue, anxiety, physical function and overall well-being.
Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder that is characterized by joint pain, tenderness, fatigue, depression, headaches, irritable bowel and bladder symptoms, depression and lack of sleep. It affects an estimated 5.8 million Americans, and one in 20 people worldwide.
Although the cause of fibromyalgia is unclear, research indicates that it is primarily an amplified disorder of pain perception resulting from neurochemical imbalances in the central nervous system. There is no known cure. Treatment is usually based on pain relievers, antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs, along with lifestyle changes and excercise.