Chronic pain can turn a healthy and active life routine into a downward spiral of inactivity and more pain. Not only does experiencing pain affect your physical body and emotional state of mind, but its impact also takes a toll on your social life.
And that’s not all!
Research suggests that pain and its interference with daily activities increase with age. That means the situation doesn’t improve unless you do something about it.
Aerobic exercise can do the trick, but getting it right is equally essential for reaping the benefits and avoiding the losses.
In this article, we guide you through the magical remedy for chronic pain: Aerobic exercises and their correct application.
Note: If you suffer from central sensitization syndrome (CSS) (Click the link to learn more), you will want to avoid aerobic exercise as it can further exacerbate your condition.
Let’s dive into the mechanics behind using aerobic exercise for managing chronic pain.
Understanding the Role of Aerobic Exercises in Managing Chronic Pain
Aerobic exercises help reduce the pain threshold for chronic pain patients. Its short-term effect lasts up to 30 minutes after an individual has exercised.
Reduces Pain Sensitivity
Aerobic workouts promote the release of analgesics, also known as the body’s natural pain relievers. Regular aerobic activities and releasing analgesics help change the brain’s response to pain by normalizing the pain signal process.
Research suggests aerobic exercise has a positive effect on reduction of inflammatory markers. This happens by a mechanism in the body that encourages the muscles to release chemicals that prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.
Aerobic exercises are also known to promote the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines, which regulate immune response and promote tissue healing.
Helps Reduce Fatigue
From exhaustion upon waking up to poor sleep and inflammation, chronic pain symptoms can make a person too exhausted to perform daily activities. An increase in physical training has proven beneficial in reducing the severity of fatigue experienced by people.
Helps Build Muscle Strength
Regular aerobic exercise also helps improve muscle strength and endurance. Both are essential factors in reducing the risk of injury while improving physical health. In chronic pain patients, improved muscle strength means an improved ability to carry out daily tasks and activities.
Improves Sleep Quality
From a disrupted sleep cycle to poor sleep hygiene, aerobic exercise decreases a wide range of sleep problems. It also helps improve sleep quality in older adults who have chronic insomnia.
Unlocking the Endorphin Rush: The Emotional Benefits of Aerobic Exercises
Aerobic exercises are great at increasing the production of endorphins. These are the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters that relieve pain/discomfort and boost mood.
Endorphins are most commonly released during experiences of pain and pleasure. Boosting endorphins also has a 360-degree effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health. Here are the other benefits of boosting endorphins,
- Healthy immune system
- Reduced hormone imbalances
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved self-esteem
- Better memory and cognitive function
- Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
- Increased pleasure
In contrast, a lack of endorphins can worsen moodiness and put you at risk of anxiety or depression. It also increases aches and pains, irregular sleep cycles, and impulsiveness.
Boosting endorphins in the body allows chronic pain patients to manage their conditions and arising symptoms better. Moderate to vigorous intensity exercise is a multi-faceted solution that can boost endorphin release and other feel-good chemicals.
Finding Your Perfect Cardio: Choosing the Right Aerobic Activity for You
Whether aerobic or cardiovascular exercises, you include a series of physical activities that get your heart pumping and increase your breathing. Cardio exercises don’t require special equipment or training and are easy to schedule throughout the day.
You should schedule about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both. We suggest going for 30-minute sessions and scheduling them 3-5 times throughout the week.
Moderate activities can include brisk walking, swimming, biking, lawn mowing, or other activities you can perform while speaking. At the same time, vigorous activities include running, aerobic dancing, heavy yard work, swimming laps, etc., which make it quite challenging to speak beyond a few words.
Here is a more comprehensive list of aerobic exercises you can include in your workout routine,
- Walking or brisk walking
- Jogging or running
- Water aerobics
- Brisk walking
- Yard work (mowing and raking)
- Tennis or basketball
- House cleaning
- Climbing hills or stairs
Ensure you always start your routine with a light activity to warm up and end it with a similar activity to cool down, followed by stretching and moist heat. In addition, drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated.
While every type of aerobic exercise will offer some benefits, it is best to fill your routine with the exercises you enjoy. It will help motivate you to follow your routine and, at the same time, decrease your stress levels. Another tool to stay on routine is to have an accountability buddy who you are exercising with regularly.
Consider consulting a healthcare professional to help you choose the suitable aerobic activity based on your activity level and health status.
Tips for Pacing and Modifying Aerobic Exercises to Accommodate Pain Levels
Whether you’re just starting out or well into a beginner-level exercise routine, here are some tips to ensure you’re pacing right.
- Start low, go slow
- Break up exercise sessions into shorter routines and do them throughout the day
- Ensure proper posture
- Use a range of motion that does not further increase pain
- Calculate chores, hobbies, and routine activities as part of your routine
- Modify exercises to reduce the risk of fall
- Personalize exercise routines to fit your condition
- Do not overexert yourself (even if you’re feeling better)
- Do not ignore pain
- Do not exercise a body area that is experiencing pain, swelling, or inflammation
- Set timers during an activity to divert focus and ensure you’re not overdoing it
- Review your discomfort and its level
- Seek advice and support if pain gets worse or something doesn’t feel right
- Keep yourself motivated by setting short-term and long-term goals
In addition, you may also want to get in touch with your healthcare provider to alleviate worries of injury or increased pain.
Better yet, plan as far ahead as possible. List down your worries and ways to resolve them if they arise. Plan ways to tackle any obstacles you often experience. The more you plan, the better prepared you will be and the more chances of success in getting into the routine.
Measuring Intensity of Aerobic Workouts
While aerobic exercise has many benefits for those with chronic pain, whether you reap those benefits depends on the intensity of the workouts.
Ideally, you want to aim for moderate and vigorous activities to maintain a healthy intensity. When you’re doing moderate-intensity activities, you will find it easy to talk while you’re doing the activity but not sing. However, when you’re doing vigorous-intensity activities, you won’t find it easy to utter more than a few words.
If that’s too vague of a measurement, there are ways you can measure workout intensity.
A higher heart rate means an intense workout. Here’s how you can calculate it,
First, figure out the maximum heart rate for your age. Your maximum heart rate is the limit of increase your cardiovascular system can handle during workouts.
To calculate the average maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
For example, let’s say you’re 48 years old.
220 – 48 = 172
Hence, 172 is the average maximum heart rate for a 48-year-old.
The next step is figuring out the target heart rate zone you can aim for during your workouts. The American Heart Association suggests a target range of 50-70% of the maximum heart rate for moderate-intensity activities. The same for vigorous intensity activities is 70-85% of the maximum heart rate.
To simplify your task, here’s a list of the target maximum heart rate recommendations for different age groups,
- 30 years: 95-162 bpm
- 35 years: 93-157 bpm
- 40 years: 90-153 bpm
- 45 years: 88-149 bpm
- 50 years: 85-145 bpm
- 55 years: 83-140 bpm
- 60 years: 80-136 bpm
- 65 years: 78-132 bpm
- 70 years: 75-128 bpm
How exerted you feel is your subjective measure, so exertion levels can differ for every person doing the activity.
If you feel you’re working too hard, you’re probably exerting yourself more than you should. If you think your workout keeps your breathing and muscle fatigue in the light range, you may want to increase the intensity of some activities.
Engaging in exercise of any form can seem debilitating if you’ve never done it before, especially for those suffering from chronic pain. The key is to start slow and gradually increase time and intensity.
Thankfully, your aerobic exercise routine doesn’t have to be as intimidating. With the proper routine, you can easily make exercise a daily activity without any problem.