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Fibromyalgia and Exercise: How to Get Your Nerve Back

According to the National Institute on Health (NIH), fibromyalgia affects over 5 million U.S. adults and an estimated 3-6% of the world population.  While fibromyalgia is most prevalent in women (75-90% of those with fibromyalgia), it also occurs in men and children of all ethnic groups.  People with fibromyalgia experience aches and pain all over the body, fatigue (extreme tiredness that does not get better with sleep or rest), and problems sleeping.  Fibromyalgia may be caused by a problem in the brain with nerves and pain signals. In other words, in people with fibromyalgia, the brain misunderstands everyday pain and other sensory experiences, making the person more sensitive to pressure, temperature (hot or cold), bright lights, and noise compared to people who do not have fibromyalgia.  Fibromyalgia has been compared to arthritis. Like arthritis, fibromyalgia causes pain and fatigue. But, unlike arthritis, fibromyalgia does not cause redness and swelling, or damage to the joints.

Diagnosis and Causes of Fibromyalgia

Up until recently, fibromyalgia has been very difficult to diagnose coining the condition as the “invisible disease” believing that the syndrome was “all in the head” of those who suffer from fibromyalgia.  However, currently fibromyalgia can be identified through a questionnaire and the Manual Tender Point Survey test.  There has been a breakthrough recently with a blood test that may identify fibromyalgia making it even more possible to treat fibromyalgia.  However, more testing is needed to be more widely accepted.  Here is a short list of what may cause fibromyalgia:

  • Genes:  Mutation or deficiency in the MTHFR or COMT genes specifically
  • Having other diseases such as arthritis
  • Family history
  • Emotional or physical abuse
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Gender:  Occurs mostly in women
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Not moving enough

Exercise and Fibromyalgia

Moderate exercise is known to improve use of oxygen, energy levels, anxiety, stress and depression, sleep, self-esteem, cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and mobility. While the pain and fatigue associated with fibromyalgia may make exercise and daily activities difficult, it is crucial to be physically active.  Usually, there are no specific exercises to avoid if one has fibromyalgia. Aerobic exercise (running, jogging), weight training, water exercise, and flexibility exercises may all help. Golf, tennis, hiking, and other recreational activities are also healthful. However, exercising hard (overexertion) leads to the problems people experience post-exercise, which are called “post-exertional malaise.”  This occurs because people with fibromyalgia don’t have the energy to condition like others who can handle the increase in exercise and conditioning.  Instead, if the exercise uses more than the limited amount of energy the body can make, their systems crash, and they feel like they were hit by a truck for a few days after.  Because of this, the key is to find an amount of walking or other low-intensity exercises one can do, where he/she feels “good tired” after, and better the next day.  Instead of ramping up in the length or intensity of the workouts, one should stick to the same amount while working to increase energy production.

Benefits of Exercise

Because the main focus of fibromyalgia is neurotransmitters and brain health, one key benefit of exercise is the boosting of endorphins and serotonin in the brain.  Studies show that exercise can help restore the body’s neurochemical balance which in turn triggers a positive emotional state.  Boosting levels of natural endorphins are essentially boosting pain-fighting molecules that help to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression which are symptoms of fibromyalgia.  Elevating serotonin plays a vital role in mediating moods thereby helping relieve symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Other benefits of exercise include:

  • Burning calories and making weight control easier
  • Giving range-of-motion to painful muscles and joints
  • Improving a person’s outlook on life
  • Improving quality of sleep
  • Improving one’s sense of well-being
  • Increasing aerobic capacity
  • Improving cardiovascular health
  • Increasing energy
  • Strengthening bones
  • Strengthening muscles
  • Relieving pain

Quick Exercise Tips

Exercise consistently (aim for daily) for 15 minutes.  Even as little as 5 minutes a day can reduce your pain.  Aim to feel “good tired” after a workout but better the next day.  If exercising increases your pain, go easier and exercise for less time.  Don’t try to ramp up in time or intensity unless you notice an increase in energy.

Learn more on this topic! Join Carol Ann for her upcoming webinar:


CarolAnn (M.S., CPT, CN) is a 25+year fitness industry veteran holding positions such as program director, studio owner, educator, presenter, and author.  She develops health/fitness curriculum for organizations such as FiTOUR, Hydracize, MedFit Network, and PT Global.  Along with producing and starring in several fitness videos, she is an expert contributor for publications such as Livestrong, PFP, and New Tampa Style Magazine. She serves on the Health Advisory Board for MedFit Network.  She is now spreading the gospel of health and fitness targeting churches with Chiseled Faith®.  She has been selected to be a 2019-2021 National Fitness Hall of Fame Fitness Superstar.  You can find her work at CarolAnn.Fitness and ChiseledFaith.com.

MFN Industry Expert