It is possible to have fitness with fibromyalgia. It just takes a different approach than the one you used successfully before you had fibromyalgia. Before I outline three tricks that will help you gain control of your fitness once again, a little background.
One of the things that was happening to me before my fibromyalgia diagnosis was that I suddenly couldn’t work out. I used to ski, rollerblade, play softball, do step-aerobics and all kinds of fast-paced loud music group class workouts… suddenly I couldn’t do anything. My former intensity and pace limits seemed to be mysteriously restricted. If I could “push through” and keep some degree of intensity up, well, then I’d suffer an injury. I tore my calf muscle in two places (top and bottom) in a step aerobics class. My back seized up after a weight-lifting session. I tore the medial collateral ligaments (MCL) in my knee. And on and on it went.
Nothing was Working
Every injury would set my fitness back. I’d invariably put on some weight. And when the injury finally healed (they always took – and still take – four times as long to heal as the doctors predict. But that’s another story.) I’d be back to square one trying to get my strength and cardio back up. Everything I had ever done, for the first thirty-five and forty years of my life, with respect to getting back into shape, was not working. If I didn’t injure myself, I’d end up with flu-like symptoms in bed for a few days even after what I considered to be a mild workout.
Eventually I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2003. The rheumatologist who delivered the diagnosis (the appointment was completely unremarkable, except for the blur. He was very matter-of-fact and I was in shock, I think.) spoke very few words, except to hand me a prescription for amitriptyline and the phone number and address of a physiotherapist who specialized in fibromyalgia.
Hello Fibro Physio
I’ll never forget the woman who owned Fibro Physio in Toronto. Iris was hands down the most influential health care provider I have ever had in relation to my fibromyalgia. She recommended about half a dozen books to read, which was good because I knew NOTHING (“You know nothing, John Snow” – Game of Thrones fans will understand, for the rest of you I apologize) about fibromyalgia. Then she set out to completely dismantle everything I thought I knew about exercise and working out. She absolutely showed me that it was possible to improve my level of fitness with fibromyalgia. Before she would let me do anything else, Iris had me on a daily stretching regimen for about two weeks. I’ve summarized what she taught me in the key points below.
Important note: before you begin any exercise regimen, consult with your doctor or physiotherapist. This is what worked for me, and may not be suitable for others.
Stretch and Sooth
- Gently stretch every major muscle area in the body, especially those areas often tense in those of us with fibromyalgia
- Upper chest & shoulders
- Calf muscles & Achilles tendon
- Hold each stretch for 6 to 8 full, slow, deep breaths
- Silently say to yourself while you stretch: “All is well, all is well, all is well.” This last one I thought was weird, and I didn’t think I was depressed or thought things were bad. But I committed to try the whole program, and I kind of enjoyed the feeling I got in my body while I was saying those words during the stretches.
Slow Strength Training
- Forget what you used to do, how many reps you used to do and how much you could lift. It’s all different now.
- Start with a 1-lb weight, or a 14 oz. soup can if you don’t have access to weights. Thera-bands can work, too.
- Do no more than 1 set of 5 reps with the 1-lb weight targeting the following muscle groups
- Shoulders (arm raises to the side, out front, and straight up). You might find you need to stick with 3 reps for some of the shoulder exercises.
- Easy, gentle squats, being careful not to let your knees come any farther forward than your toes.
- Lying on the floor, do 5 reps of leg lifts: to the side, straight up, and lying on your tummy to exercise your glutes.
- Remember: ONLY ONE SET, no matter how good you feel at the moment. Fibromyalgia has a delayed reaction to over-exertion.
- REST 2-3 days before you do this series again.
- It’s best to try to do this series twice a week for a couple weeks to be sure you’re not going to trigger a flare.
- If you’re still good after a couple weeks, increase the frequency to three times a week.
- After the third week, now that you’re doing the series 3X per week, start adding reps. Slowly. Do a full week with 6 reps… then the next week make it 7, and so on until you are up to 10-12.
- ONLY then do you start adding weight. One pound at a time.
This sounds ridiculously slow, but in my experience, it was the only way I could get any sort of fitness level back without triggering an injury or a flare. And it worked. After about six months I was almost back to my pre-fibromyalgia strength training capabilities.
Iris told me I needed to “trick” my body when approaching cardio. I reported trouble getting my heart rate up because either I sustained a new injury or fatigue would get in the way. Here’s Iris’s plan:
- If you’re at a gym, switch up the type of cardio every 2-3 minutes, e.g. switch between the elliptical trainer, the treadmill, the stationary cycle, the rowing machine and the stair-master
- This will “trick” your body into thinking you’re only doing 2-3 minute spurts, and it will let you carry on. I was so surprised to find that this worked!
- If you’re walking outside, or doing anything physical, REST for five minutes after every twenty minutes of activity.
If you follow these tips, I have complete confidence you will soon enjoy better fitness with fibromyalgia.
I’m going to share the following infographic with you too. It’s from the folks at the Pain Management and Injury Relief Centre (PMIR). Full disclosure: I’m not being paid to share this infographic but they are including my blog in some of their social promotion activity.
It’s got good information, but my biggest caution about this is that the images are more representative of very fit individuals, and not those of us who have fibromyalgia or other chronic pain conditions. The images of the planks, for example, can be misleading or off-putting because for many of us it will take quite a while of slowly working up to that pose before we can actually get there. However, the overall message is a good one.