a woman with chronic pain learns to overcome her pain through exercise


Overcoming pain through exercise

  • Research shows that regular physical activity provides the same level of improvement to stress, anxiety and depression as most mental health medications.

As a physical therapist, my favorite patient is someone who has been diagnosed with chronic pain and has little hope that their condition will improve. As strange as that sounds, let me explain.

The majority of people who have chronic pain are living in fight-or-flight mode and avoid activities that are painful. Research shows us that aerobic exercise can alleviate chronic pain by decreasing a hypersensitive nervous system. Effective exercise for people who have chronic pain targets the entire nervous system by increasing whole-body blood flow, oxygen, healthy and happy chemicals (neurotransmitters). Exercise also: 

  • decreases the stress response
  • reduces symptoms of depression and mood swings
  • improves brain function including focus, memory and concentration
  • promotes weight management
  • improves sleep
  • decreases the need for pain medication.

You don't have to run a marathon or do stair sprints. A brisk walk, some laps in the pool or a bike ride will do. Starting with five to 10 minutes of gentle exercises like yoga, tai chi, treadmill walking, stationary bike or another activity of your choice. Move toward achieving 20-30 minutes of exercise most days of the week and do it consistently over time. This will help control pain and create behavior change that is long-lasting.

Slowly, but surely, you can adopt a new mindset of "sore but safe" and "hurt doesn't mean harm." Learning about your pain experience while working a consistent, gentle exercise plan can ultimately calm the hypersensitive nervous system and allow you to live more fully.


Share this article


One of the best exercises: The plank

Continue reading


Get fun, inspiring, provider-reviewed articles sent to your inbox.

Sign up for our email newsletter