Exercise and Fibromyalgia: A Love/Hate Affair

I Wish I Could Move Like That …

My reaction to reading Sirena Dufault’s story about hiking the Arizona Trail was, I suspect, like many fibro-folks out there, one of pure, unadulterated envy.

As I read on, though, I began to wonder: was her story really so different from mine? Or anyone else’s? Was her pain any different? Any less severe?

I was forced to conclude “probably not.” Which only makes me crazier, frankly. If she can do it, why not me?

Fibromyalgia and Exercise: Why I Resist What Could Make Me Better

I had this dream of hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro once. I gave it up when fibro hit. How do I reconcile that fact — that I had this dream, this cherished goal, but gave it up in the face of fibro — with my reluctance not to accept my limits? Either it wasn’t that cherished, this dream of mountain climbing. Or, I’m only insistent on refusing to accept some limits, but not all.

As I sit here today, on a hot Friday afternoon in coastal South Carolina, suffering from a flareup of both the fibro and sciatica from my degnerating disks’ impingement on the sciatic nerve, I know that I have to move my body. I know that if I do move my body — gently, to be sure, and in very controlled ways — that both of these flareups will ease somewhat.

Yet, here I sit, watching a movie on Showtime, typing up this post.

Why is it so hard to get moving? Because we don’t want to hurt more. Because we’re more comfortable wih the pain we know than the pain we don’t know — the pain we have, over the pain we haven’t yet acquired. Because it’s easier to be still than to move.

But it’s been pretty well established that a carefully designed and monitored (not to mention “slowly implemented”!) exercise program can be very effective in reducing chronic pain — including the pain of fibromyalgia.

So why are so many of us still sitting on the couch, afraid to move? We know if we go too far, too fast, that we’ll end up in a flare. This is also a fairly well-established fact. This is a tightrope we have to walk, make no mistake — it’s high, and it’s really skinny. One misstep — one quarter-inch left or right — and we fall into much worse pain.

Nevertheless, we must walk it. So, how do we start to wrap our minds around this process, and begin to embrace exercise, instead of fear it?

First Things First: See Your Doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor right off the bat, before you begin any new exercise program.

Talk to her about what you want to do, and discuss with her what sorts of activities you can safely engage in. Find out what she recommends — what’s worked for her other patients with your condition — what you should stay away from for now.

Also, make certain that your blood pressure and current weight will support exercise. Get very clear with your physician on any special safeguards you should take.

Know Why You Haven’t Exercised Yet

First, get clear on why you haven’t exercised yet. Acknowledge every single fear, every single belief — and I daresay it’s not just the fibro that’s been keeping you on the sidelines.

It’s probably also the fear of being seen as ridiculous, or feeling ridiculous, or getting uncomfortably hot or sweaty, or feeling worse about ourselves and our bodies than we already do. Write them all down and own them, each and every single fear, thought, or belief.

Acknowledging our beliefs is the first step to changing them.

Define Your Vision

Next, think about your ideal — your vision of yourself in movement. Do you dream of hiking up a mountain? Walking the length of an 800-mile trail? Running a marathon? Swimming daily? Finishing a yoga class?

Whatever your vision of yourself-in-movement is, write down a description of that vision as if it were already true. A few cautionary guidelines:

  • Be realistic. You’re not going to be prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, I’m afraid.
  • But make it exciting. Too small a goal won’t energize you and get you motivated.
  • Pick what truly lights your fire. If it doesn’t ignite your passion now, you’ll have a much harder time of it when things get tough — and they will.

Write down your vision as if it’s already your reality, in the present tense with as many sensory details as possible — what does it feel like, doing whatever movement you’ve chosen? Are you racing on a horse’s back with the wind whipping your hair? Are you slicing easily through the pool’s water like a mermaid?

The goal here is to conjure up as vivid a picture of you in action as you possibly can, so that your body actually gets tricked a little into thinking it’s already real. Your body and mind doesn’t know any better, you know. Convince them it’s real, and you’re well on your way.

Determine Your New Beliefs

Think of the person — you — with fibro (or whatever your chronic pain condition might be) — moving, with that vision in mind. What does that person have to believe, in order to do what she does?

Using your list of fears and current beliefs as a template or guide, begin listing out the beliefs that enable that vision to become reality.

If you believe now that it’s not worth it to risk a new flareup, then how about believing “careful exercise makes me feel better and nothing is more important than feeling better”?

If you believe “It’ll make me feel like a failure” then how about “Exercising and taking care of myself makes me feel wonderful, like a goddess”?

Just write them down for now. Don’t worry about whether you can adopt those beliefs, how “wrong” they feel to you as you write them down, or whether they’re “accurate” — just list them down. Create the full picture of how it all looks on paper, in black and white, to be this person who moves the way you want to.

Open Your Heart and Mind to Your Vision

This is probably the hardest part of this process: contemplating the possibility of letting go your current beliefs in favor of the new ones.

For some, this might smack of “it’s all in your head.” Please understand: that’s not what I’m saying. At all. (Hopefully, y’all know that about me by now!)

Rather, it’s about changing the beliefs that are holding you back from doing something that’s scary and risky, but very effective at relieving your pain. It’s about your motivation to engage in this particular kind of treatment, not the pain itself.

But to get there, you first have to be able to envision letting those old beliefs go completely. And for many of us, that’s a scary proposition in itself. If you’re having difficulty with that concept, then try telling yourself this: “I can always pick up my old beliefs if the new ones don’t work.”

However, if you want to see a different result, you’re going to have to do things differently. If you’re going to do things differently, you’re going to have to believe different things. And to do that, you first need to open up to the possibility itself.

Changing Your Beliefs

It sounds strange, perhaps, at first. But it can be done. We change our thoughts all the time, and beliefs are nothing more than entrenched thoughts.

This is not to say that the process of changing beliefs is an easy one. It’s not. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of concentrated attention. For the first several days, if not weeks, you’ll need to keep these new beliefs firmly in mind.

You don’t need to change your behavior during this time, if it feels like “too much” — just work on the beliefs. Eventually, those new beliefs will take hold and that will help propel you into action.

Try these suggestions for helping your new beliefs to take root and displace the old, unhelpful ones:

  1. At least a few times a day, take five minutes or so to visualize your ideal vision. Try to make it as sensory an experience as possible. Feel it fully.
  2. Set aside a regular time in the morning and at night before bed to reread your list of new beliefs. Read slowly, deliberately — say them out loud, even.
  3. Consider the new beliefs in terms of your daily activities. Is there some action in particular you can take now, or change the way you perform an action, to reinforce those beliefs? If one of your new beliefs is “I am an active person,” can you find moments in your day to incorporate more activity? For instance, some light stretches in the morning when you get up, doing calf raises when you’re washing dishes, taking frequent breaks throughout the day to walk around or do pushups against the wall … even creating a new fidgeting habit … all these things can reinforce that new belief. You believe you’re an active person because you are an active person. See how nicely that works?

Get Up! But Do It Slowly, and Talk to Your Doctor First

In sum: getting active and doing some careful exercise on a daily basis will go a long way towards managing your pain. But you have to go about it the right way. The very first thing you need to do: see your doctor, and verify with her what kinds of activity you can safely do. Then, work on acknowledging your current limiting beliefs and changing them, perhaps reinforcing them by implementing new actions slowly, over time.

5 thoughts on “Exercise and Fibromyalgia: A Love/Hate Affair

  1. Sarakastic

    “I can always pick up my old beliefs if the new ones don’t work.”

    I’m going to use this as a mantra for everything. I’m always afraid that by changing something I’ll make everything worse or beyond my capacity to deal with it. As you pointed out my old beliefs will still be there, not working, if I need them.

    1. Sherrie

      Heh – yeah, we do get attached to our old beliefs, don’t we? They’re like little intangible security blankets.

  2. Sirena Dufault

    Thanks for mentioning my hike! Great post, Sherrie- it articulated a lot of the thoughts and fears that exercise brings up in people with fibromyalgia. I would like to add that it’s important to try different types of activity to find something you really enjoy doing, so that it stays interesting and fresh. Many people think exercise means going to the gym, but you can just as easily benefit from a dance class or walking around your neighborhood. Another thing I learned through this experience is take any activity slow at first and build up very gradually to reduce the chance of flares. When I first started walking years ago with my dog, it was just down the street and back. This journey of 800 miles was slowly built upon those first small walks 10 years ago.

    1. Sherrie

      Hi, Sirena! Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving us a note. I feel pretty safe in speaking for TTD readers: we’re all impressed by your accomplishment, and we’re thrilled you were able to do it, in a way, for all of us.

      You are truly an inspiration to me, and to thousands of others with fibro everywhere.

      Your comment about starting slow — about your journey taking essentially ten years to work up to — is something we all need to remember. Nothing good gets built over night. It’s easy when we see an amazing feat like yours to think, “Wow – but there’s no way I could ever do that.” Maybe or maybe not – but you didn’t start at the 800-mile marker. You didn’t even really start at the 0-mile marker! What you’re saying, I think, is that you started well back from that, and it took a steady buildup over time to hit that trail (heh – I originally typed “trial” – maybe both? LOL).

      Something for all of us to remember and learn from.


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