Fibromyalgia is a frustrating and poorly understood condition that causes chronic pain. Researchers think it may be due to a condition called central sensitization, which is caused by overactive nerves.
Does exercise help with fibromyalgia symptoms?
Exercise, such as tai chi, may help with pain and mental health in people with fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia typically experience widespread chronic pain. Exercise may help prevent chronic pain by strengthening the muscles, preventing muscle wasting, and reducing muscle damage.
The mental health problems that often occur alongside fibromyalgia can make the condition worse for some people. For example, people who have depression might find it more difficult to manage pain and stress.
Research on people with depression has found that exercise can be effective in alleviating some symptoms. A 2016 study argues that previous research may have underestimated the effectiveness of exercise for fighting depression, including depression linked to fibromyalgia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that a person does 150 minutes of medium-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity per week.
Adults should also perform strength-training exercises that target all major muscle groups at least 2 days per week.
People with fibromyalgia should aim to do the recommended amount of exercise. However, fibromyalgia can make exercise difficult, particularly for people experiencing depression or chronic fatigue.
Even just a few minutes of exercise a week is better than no exercise at all. A person with fibromyalgia may wish to start slowly and gradually increase the amount of time spent exercising when they find a type of exercise they find helpful and enjoyable.
Best exercises for fibromyalgia symptoms
People with fibromyalgia might try experimenting with different approaches to find the exercise routine that works best.
Some evidence-supported options include:
Studies suggest that running and walking can help with fibromyalgia symptoms.
Aerobic exercises, such as running or walking, can help with many symptoms of fibromyalgia. A 2017 review analyzed previous studies of aerobic exercise to treat fibromyalgia. The review found that aerobic exercise can improve quality of life, stiffness and pain, and may improve muscle function.
However, there is no evidence that exercise helps with fatigue. The review also classifies the quality of evidence as low to moderate, as many studies only use a small number of participants.
People concerned about the impact of aerobic exercise on muscles or joints should consider low-impact aerobics, such as swimming.
Exercise classes can help people with fibromyalgia stay motivated. Consider starting with a low-intensity yoga, tai chi, or aerobics class.
Some gyms and recreation centers offer exercise classes specifically for people with fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or low mobility. These classes provide a safe environment for people who are just getting started with physical fitness, or who are dealing with challenging symptoms.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that incorporates stretching and slow movements. It encourages mind-body awareness, so may help with both the physical and psychological symptoms of fibromyalgia.
A 2018 study found that yang-style supervised tai chi could be as effective or more effective than aerobic exercise for managing fibromyalgia symptoms.
Participants in the study got the most relief when they attended tai chi classes frequently and regularly. People who attended two classes a week for 24 weeks had the most significant improvements on symptom measures as indicated by the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQR).
That group saw an average 16.2 point reduction in symptoms. All tai chi participants saw an average symptom improvement of 5.5 points. An 8.1 point symptom reduction is considered clinically significant.
Resistance and strength training
Resistance training strengthens the muscles and can improve symptoms of fibromyalgia. A 2015 study of women with fibromyalgia found that progressive resistance training was associated with greater overall health, pain relief, and muscle strength.
A wide range of strength training routines, from group strength classes to lifting weights at home, may help.
Yoga offers gentle stretching, mind-body awareness, and a slow and steady approach to physical fitness. A 2017 study found that yoga may help with many fibromyalgia symptoms, including perceived disability, depression, and fear of movement.
This study suggests that yoga might also serve as a bridge to other forms of exercise, such as aerobics, for people whose symptoms prevent them from doing higher intensity exercise.
Yoga is also very accessible, with classes offered at gyms and community centers in most places. Many yoga videos are also available online, including some designed specifically for chronic pain. The video below offers a gentle workout to help a person improve their strength and energy levels.
Other fibromyalgia treatments
Many people with fibromyalgia find that they get the best results when they combine several treatments. It is essential to talk to a doctor about new symptoms and whether existing symptoms are improving or worsening.
Some treatment options that may offer relief include:
- Medication. Fibromyalgia drugs such as Lyrica can help reduce nerve sensitivity. Some people get relief from antidepressants, which can help with both mental health symptoms and physical pain. Doctors may also prescribe pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications.
- Therapy. Therapy can help people with fibromyalgia cope with chronic pain. A therapist can also help with lifestyle changes and suggest ways to reduce or manage stress.
- Stress management. For many people, stress and trauma are triggers for fibromyalgia. Stress management strategies, such as meditation, yoga, and therapy may help.
- Managing triggers. Some people with fibromyalgia find that specific things, including foods, stress, and seasonal changes, trigger their symptoms. Identifying, avoiding, or preparing for these triggers can help reduce symptoms.
- Alternative and complementary remedies. Some people find relief from acupuncture, massage, special diets, and other alternative therapies. Talk to a doctor before trying any alternative treatments, and consider using complementary remedies alongside more traditional medicine.
Exercise may not cure fibromyalgia, but it can offer significant symptom relief. Some people with fibromyalgia avoid movement because of their pain. However, avoiding movement can lead to muscle damage, tension, weight gain, and other health problems.
So, encouraging healthy movement may prevent fibromyalgia symptoms from getting worse, and can reduce the risk of developing complications related to a sedentary lifestyle.
There is no right exercise for everyone. Instead, the goal should be to find an exercise that is challenging enough to offer a good workout, but comfortable enough to do most days of the week.
People with fibromyalgia should talk to their doctors about any movement limitations first, and try different forms of exercise until they find what works best for them.