Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that affects almost 10 million Americans, according to the National Fibromyalgia Association, and is characterized by fatigue and widespread pain in various tender points in the body. Although exercise is one of the recommended therapies to help with fibromyalgia symptoms, the pain the condition causes can often make it difficult for you to start or continue with an exercise program, such as running, even if you've been an active runner before the onset of symptoms.
Doctors don't know what causes fibromyalgia, but they believe it may involve a variety of factors, including genetics, infections or physical or emotional trauma. The pain from fibromyalgia may be caused by an increased sensitivity in your brain to pain signals. Repeated nerve stimulation causes your brain to change, with an increase in chemicals like neurotransmitters that signal pain and the tendency for your brain’s pain receptors to develop a “memory” of the pain and overreact. Symptoms of fibromyalgia may vary according to weather, stress, time of day or physical activity.
If you have fibromyalgia, aerobic activity can be one of the most effective ways to deal with your symptoms. Exercise can help with pain relief, due to the release of hormone-like substances called endorphins that act like analgesics, linking to opiate-receptors in your brain to block pain, something often called the “runner’s high.” In a German study published in Clinical Rheumatology in 2009, researchers investigated the effects of jogging, walking, cycling or swimming on fibromyalgia patients over 12 weeks and found that there was a significant decrease in perceived pain compared to a sedentary control group.
Exercise such as jogging or running may increase your fibromyalgia pain at first, but doing it regularly often decreases symptoms over time. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help you design a suitable program that also should include stretching, good posture and relaxation exercises. Keep your activity to an even level and try not to overdo it on days you’re feeling better, which can ultimately make you have more bad days with increased pain and fatigue.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the best way to start your fitness program is with short sessions of gentle, low-impact aerobic activity like walking or swimming, then increase the length of sessions gradually to 20 to 30 minutes. Aerobic exercise is an activity that increases your pulse rate to between 60 percent and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, calculated by subtracting your age from 220. Fibromyalgia patients, however, may need to start at the low end of this heart rate range. If you were a runner before the onset of your symptoms, you may find you need to switch to a jog instead, since high-impact exercise has been known to worsen fibromyalgia symptoms. Rheumatologist Ronenn Roubenoff, M.D., adds that you will have to stick with an exercise program for about six weeks, exercising two or three times per week, to start feeling or seeing any benefit.
You should never try to “run through the pain” and hope that it will get better. Although feeling sore a few days after exercise is normal, a prolonged increase in pain could signal that you’ve tried to do too much too soon and you should cut back to stretching exercises. Since pain may occur one to three days after exercise, you shouldn’t increase the intensity of your routine more than once a week.