Fibromyalgia and Exercise

What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes pain in your muscles and joints. It may also cause headaches, muscle stiffness, body aches and can disrupt your sleep. Stress or lack of sleep can make the symptoms of fibromyalgia worse. More women than men have fibromyalgia, and the disorder is common–it is seen in up to 5% of the population. However, it isn’t life-threatening and it doesn’t cause permanent damage.

If I have fibromyalgia, what can I do to help myself feel better?

The treatment for fibromyalgia is usually a combination of medicine to ease pain and self-care. One of the best things you can do if you have fibromyalgia is exercise. Begin with stretching exercises and gentle, low-impact activity, such as walking, swimming or bicycling. Start your exercise program slowly because at the beginning, exercise may make your pain worse. Some muscle soreness is normal when you’re starting to exercise, but sharp pain may be a sign that you have overworked or injured your muscles.

As you progress with exercise, it will become more comfortable for you. For exercise to help, you must do it regularly. The goal is to get started and keep going, to gain relief from pain and to improve sleep. Below are some exercises you might want to try:

Walking: Start slowly by walking 5 minutes the first day. The next day, add a minute to this total. Keep adding 1 or 2 minutes a day until you are walking 60 minutes a day. When you reach this point, walk for at least 1 hour, 3 or 4 times a week. If you find yourself struggling as you’re working your way up to walking for 60 minutes, go back to a length of time that was comfortable for you, and continue walking for this period of time for several days. Then continue to increase the minutes again until you reach the goal of 60 minutes. Try as many times as you need to reach the goal of walking for 60 minutes.

Walking/jogging: After you feel comfortable walking 3 or 4 times a week, you can alternate walking with slow jogging. Walk 2 blocks, then jog 1 block, walk 2 blocks, jog 1 block, and so on. Do this as often as it feels comfortable. Extend your exercise for longer periods if you feel comfortable.

Bicycling: Stationary bicycles (exercise bikes) offer the benefit of exercising indoors. Keep track of your mileage, or set a goal of bicycling for 60 minutes.

Swimming: Swimming is a great source of exercise that is very gentle on your joints. Try treading water for 1 to 2 minutes at a time, or swimming several laps. Try to work up to swimming laps for 30 total minutes.

The type of exercise you choose is up to you. It’s important that you start exercising and keep doing it. Exercise relieves much of the pain fibromyalgia causes. Some people even find that exercise makes all their pain go away. You will also feel better if you have some control over your own care and well-being.Exercise Can Help
If you have FM, exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing. Your body already hurts, why would you want to make it worse? But, for you more than anyone, it is crucial to get your muscles healthy which can offer some relief. Healthy muscles are flexible, which can increase your range of motion and the stronger you are, the more you can move around each day. Other benefits include:

  • Better sleep
  • Reduced stress and depression
  • Improved your energy levels
  • More endurance
  • Weight control

Exercising With FM
Your first order of business is to start SLOWLY. Your goal should be to improve your health (so forget about weight loss for now). Even walking feels like a chore so you may only be able to exercise for minutes at a time. That’s normal! Setting small goals (i.e., walk two minutes today and add a minute every day after) can help you slowly increase your exercise time. Other activities you might enjoy are:

  • Swimming – This is a great way to condition your heart and body while getting full and gentle support from the water. No impact means your joints are protected
  • Yoga – Increase your flexibility and de-stress by learning how to relax and breathe. Take care to keep movements easy…some postures may be too difficult so talk to your instructor about modifications.
  • Tai Chi – This ‘moving meditation’ helps you get back in touch with your body and stay active without impact or jarring movements.

Cardio is important, and so is strength training. But, before you do anything check with your doctor and get a referral to a physical therapist so you know exactly what to do. In general, strength training exercises for people with FM can include:

  • Pushups–Do them against a wall instead of on the floor
  • Lifting weights–Use very light weights or even canned food for resistance
  • Resistance Bands–Use a light resistance and take your time.
  • Machines–Make sure you get instructions on how to use them and start with NO weight.

Condition your body slowly and only do as much as you can. Give yourself at least one day (preferably two) of rest before going back to weights.

The hardest part of exercising with FM is the frustration–knowing that you used to be able to do more and now you can barely get out of bed. Try channeling that frustration into your workouts, reminding yourself that every time you move around you are improving. Taking control of your health can provide tremendous relief, not only physically but emotionally.


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