Physical activity and managing pain

It might not seem like the right thing to do, but if you have chronic pain getting active can really make a difference. Physical activity and exercise programmes are increasingly being promoted as an effective treatment for chronic pain.

What is chronic pain? 

Chronic pain is any pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks. About 1 in 6 New Zealanders live with chronic pain and no two people are affected in the same way. Chronic pain can further contribute to disability, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, poor quality of life and healthcare costs. Read more about chronic pain

How can exercise improve chronic pain? 

It's common to avoid physical activity or exercise when you suffer from chronic pain, due to worry that movement might make the pain worse. But this just makes things worse for you in the long term.

Over time, the inactivity can make the pain worse. It also puts you at greater risk of injury. You may also be less able to carry out daily activities such as cooking, showering, cleaning or walking. This is known as deconditioning. 

Instead plenty of research has shown that physical activity and exercise can help you manage chronic pain. Physical activity and exercise can help people living with chronic pain to engage in more activities gradually and live a normal life.

Other benefits of being physically even with chronic pain active include:

  • increased heart health and circulation
  • improved muscle health, stamina and strength
  • greater social involvement
  • increased quality of life
  • improved mental health.

What exercises can I do for chronic pain and how often?

Your GP, physiotherapist or healthcare providers might recommend specific exercises depending on your condition.

If not, the key to getting started is choosing something you can do on both your good days and bad days. Don't expect to make progress too quickly. Start low and go slow.

If you are concerned that exercise could make you feel worse, ask a family member or friend to do the activity with you, just until you get confident. Or if you think joining a group might work for you, find out what is available in your community.

Types of exercises that you can get started to help manage chronic pain include:

  • stretching exercises
  • strengthening exercises
  • cardiovascular exercises.

Stretching exercises

This type of exercise can help increase flexibility, loosen tight muscles and improve your range of motion. It can help you engage in your daily activities and move more easily. Lower back stretches are particularly useful for lower back pain.

Strengthening exercises

Strengthening exercises help build strong muscles and improve your strength. Examples of strengthening exercises include squats, bicep curls, leg lifts on all fours and wall push-ups.

Cardiovascular exercises

Cardiovascular exercises improve your aerobic capacity and can be helpful for chronic pain. It requires little or no equipment. Examples include walking, swimming or cycling.

Read more about gentle exercising

Learn more

Chronic pain and exercise Exercise Right, Australia 
7 exercises for reducing chronic pain Healthline, US
How and why to exercise with chronic pain Integrative Pain Science Institute, US
Chronic pain self-management NHS, UK

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.