10 Reasons Why People Living With Pain Should Exercise

07/31/2014 | 5 min. read

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Exercise can be highly beneficial for people living with pain. But every person is unique so working closely with your doctor to ensure the activities you want to do are appropriate is important.

Why Exercise Matters When You're Living With Pain

No matter what type of exercise you pick, there are many powerful reasons for people living with pain to start exercising. Here are my top 10:

  1. When you get to the point that you can exercise hard (and this won’t be right away but you can build up to it pretty quickly), your body will reward you by releasing endorphins. Endorphins are nature’s own painkillers—and they are completely safe! Athletes call this an “endorphin rush.” For people living with pain, you may find that your pain suddenly decreases and a good mood sneaks up on you!

  2. Many exercises help build up muscles that can help you manage your pain better. For instance, building a strong core through Pilates or free-weight training can help support your back better. 

  3. Even mild exercise—if that’s all you can muster—will get your blood flowing. If you are sedentary, blood tends to pool around your organs. Getting the blood oxygenated and into normal circulation is going to make you feel better all over.

  4. Exercise strengthens your heart and lung function, which deteriorates rapidly if you are bed-ridden or don’t get up much because of your pain. Good cardio function will improve your energy level and help fight fatigue.

  5. Science does not fully understand the link between depression and pain, but it is real. Exercise is one of the best depression-busters there is. Regular exercise can help you keep the blues away and that alone may reduce your pain.

  6. Regular exercise can help you burn calories and greatly aid in weight loss. Being overweight or obese can be a major contributor to your painful condition. In fact, people who lose even relatively modest amounts of weight (such as a person who is 100 pounds overweight losing 10 pounds) often discover their pain is markedly reduced. It is very hard to lose weight by dieting alone, but dieting and exercise can help you shed some of the pounds that are contributing to your pain.

  7. Your body is built to work physically, and getting a regular workout can improve your sleep. Pain and disordered sleep go hand-in-hand. Exercise can help you beat insomnia and enjoy more refreshing sleep—which, in turn, will make you feel better.

  8. If you are dealing with chronic pain, one of the greatest dangers you face is social isolation. It is natural for people struggling with pain to want to “get away” and be alone, but isolation actually feeds the pain. Getting a gym membership, taking a Zumba class, joining the recreation center to use the pool, or even hitting the track at a local park are all going to force you to get out and about—and maybe even meet people. These interactions can help distract you from your pain and give you some positive reinforcement about the pleasant things in life.

  9. Exercise can change the way you think about yourself. As a doctor, I know that chronic pain is a real physical condition, but there is a mental component to pain as well. People who live day in and day out with chronic pain start to think of themselves as damaged people living diminished lives. Exercise can help you learn new skills, make friends, feel better, and set achievable goals. Today you may not be able to walk to the end of your driveway without getting winded, but you can build up your endurance to the point that one day you can walk—or even jog—for a mile. You can develop skills to do a full workout in the water or keep up with a cardio class at the gym. These things will change how you think about yourself and the goals you can achieve.

  10. Exercise pays off quickly. You never hear a person conclude a workout and say they wished they had not exercised! That’s because exercise (the right type, in moderation, done safely) almost always makes you feel better fast. Who can’t use a little instant happiness?

To get you inspired about exercise,  here’s a list of some great exercises for people with pain:

  • Water aerobics
  • Aquatic jogging (running or walking in the water)
  • Swimming
  • Walking and power-walking
  • Free-weight workouts
  • Pilates
  • Biking (stationery or outdoors)
  • Jogging
  • Calisthenics (push-ups, crunches, pull-ups)
  • Dance-based exercise routines on DVD (Zumba is the latest, but there are lots of them)

If you have painful joints, water-based exercises will allow you to move without putting undue stress or pressure on your joints. Swimming and other aquatic exercises are powerful workouts with the added benefit that they may allow you greater mobility than you have on land. Plus in the hot summer months, getting in the pool can be very refreshing (it's also great exercise for people who hate to sweat).

Walking and jogging are a great and inexpensive ways to exercise for those whose joints can tolerate these activities. Those who prefer to workout at home using DVDs will find lots of great workout choices, but Pilates (for building a strong core) and dance-type programs (for cardio) can have the most beneficial effects for people living with pain. Note that I do not necessarily endorse yoga (although it is fine if you have found it works for you) because the stretching poses in yoga are often counterproductive for people dealing with chronic pain.

Regardless of the activity you choose, the key to any successful exercise program is finding the types of exercise that you like best. If you absolutely hate to ride a bike, don’t even try to make that part of your workout routine. And if you’re athletic to begin with, try to get back to the things you love, whether they're basketball, golf, or kayaking.

Exercise can be highly beneficial for people living with pain. But every person is unique so working closely with your doctor to ensure the activities you want to do are appropriate is important. 

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Meet Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi is an internationally recognized expert in pain medicine who has spent much of his career studying what pain is, why it occurs, and how best to treat it. That experience has led him to believe strongly that there are often ways to relieve or manage pain which are overlooked or discounted, and that the most effective treatment approaches are always multi-modal.

More About Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi