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What Fitness Training Works Best with Fibromyalgia?

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By Sue Ingebretson

Have you ever worked one-on-one with a fitness trainer? For many of us, the onerous drill sergeant “Drop and give me 50 pushups!” image comes to mind. This tactic simply doesn’t work for those of us dealing with fibromyalgia, chronic illness and limited mobility issues.

Exercise can really be a pain.
You may have tried a whole variety of fitness routines. I know I have. Perhaps you’ve tried jogging, walking, climbing, biking, swimming, aerobics, spinning, kettlebells or more? All may purport quick slim-down results, but the lasting negative impact to the muscles and joints may be less than worth it.Yet, we hear over and over that fitness has merits for the chronically ill. We’re told that the benefits far outweigh the cost of our effort.

What are the benefits to regular exercise?

Healthy fitness and body movement regimens can offer many valuable healing outcomes. Here are nearly two dozen to keep in mind –

20 Key Reasons to Exercise

  • Detoxification
  • Stress and anxiety reduction
  • Mood elevation
  • Improved blood flow
  • Improved oxygenation
  • Improved digestion
  • Weight loss / weight management
  • Regulated blood sugar
  • Decreased risk of degenerative diseases
  • Improved heart health and function
  • Building muscle and decreasing muscle loss
  • Improved bone strength and health
  • Improved brain function / clarity
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Improved sense of hopefulness / happiness
  • Improved memory
  • Decreased impulses toward addictive behaviors
  • Increased ability to relax
  • Improved task management, organizing or planning abilities
  • Enhanced creativity
If you weren’t sure why exercise is important, I hope that at least some of the key points above provide inspiration to learn more.What potential problems need special awareness?

When I strike up conversations about exercise either online or in person, I’m likely to hear stories of fitness programs that didn’t work. I’ve heard of people who’ve nearly (temporarily) crippled themselves from trying something too strenuous for their fitness levels. Perhaps you can relate?

Have you ever tried a new fitness regimen that gave you intense muscle soreness, joint pain and/or increased fatigue afterward?

Yes, me too.

Here’s my takeaway on these important subjects:

Muscle soreness
I’m always open to experiencing some muscle soreness after exercise – if it’s productive. There’s a difference between intense muscle soreness and discomfort. My definition of “acceptable” muscle soreness is that it’s temporary and limited to the specific muscle group used in exercise. For example, if I start a new outdoor walking routine that includes steep hills, I may anticipate increased soreness in my calves and upper legs. It should dissipate in a day or two and become increasingly improved when given time to recover. And, when the muscles become conditioned, this soreness should be less and less over time or not happen at all.

Joint pain
Increased joint pain has no fitness value. Some exercises may increase temporary joint pain that soon goes away, but it still indicates that the activity needs adjustments. If a fitness routine increases joint pain, I look for alternative body mechanics or ways to adapt the exercise to my specific mobility limitations.

As far as fatigue goes, there’s a difference between fitness fatigue (being physically and naturally tired after exercise) and fibromyalgia fatigue. I probably don’t have to explain what fibromyalgia fatigue feels like to you. You get it.

I’ve found that some increased fatigue at the get-go of a new fitness routine can be expected. But excessive fatigue is a signal that something isn’t right. Just as with joint pain, it may take some adaptations to the exercise or even consulting with a fitness professional to see what changes can help.

The key here is that improved fitness health should increase energy and not decrease energy. It may take adjusting and sticking with some temporary symptom increases to find your own sweet spot of fitness success.

What exercise works best for fibromyalgia and overall health?

When it comes to any potential activity to improve health, I’m definitely attracted to speed and efficiency. I want to find the most effective protocols and treatments that maximize my time and efforts.

Keeping that in mind, the hands-down winner for the best fitness program for any chronic illness is Interval Training. Varieties of interval training also go by terms such as H.I.I.T (High Intensity Interval Training), circuit training or sprint training.

But don’t let the “intensity” part of the equation deter you. It’s not about pushing yourself beyond your body’s ability or endurance level. It is about challenging yourself within healthy boundaries that you define.

Additionally, it’s not about high-impact. While there are high-impact interval training programs, the specific method that works best for chronic illness challenges are low or non-impact options.

Here’s why interval training offers the most bang for your buck.

  • It’s short and sweet (get started and get it done!)
  • It offers high efficacy (great results)
  • No special equipment needed
  • Customizable to individual needs
  • Flexible for any fitness level and interest
  • It’s both anti-aging and pain relieving (1)
  • It increases exercise tolerance (2)
  • It maximizes oxygen intake which can maximize healing (3)
What are the characteristics of interval training? Interval training includes working out, or exercising, at varying intensities and usually with a variety of moves. Varying the speed at which you exercise is a practice that I wrote about in my book, FibroWHYalgia. I wrote about the term, fartlek, which is a Swedish term that translates to speed play. It originally referred to skiing, skating or running in fast and slow repeated patterns for increased health and vitality. When we play with (and vary) the speed of our workout, we condition the body to expect variety.

Many non-impact workout activities can be done using the interval training method including walking, swimming, bicycling, rebounding and more. Each fitness program usually includes a period of warm up and cool down before and after the interval training. The interval training portion of the workout consists of high-intensity workouts followed by low-intensity recovery periods.

Interval training cycles, therefore, include a short burst of intense workout, followed by a slower paced recovery period. The speed or intensity of the workout and the length of time chosen for the recovery period is up to the individual.

According to Jason R. Karp, PhD, “One of the many great things about intervals is that there’s no single hard-and-fast rule. Different lengths of workout and recovery bring different benefits—and they’re all good.” (4)

Sustained or steady-state workouts (aerobic activities such as running, jogging, elliptical, treadmill, etc.) are less efficient as the body can build up a tolerance for the workouts and experience decreased effectiveness over time.

The subject of interval training for conditions such as arthritis has been studied at length and reported by Anja Bye, a researcher at the K. G. Jebsen Centre for Exercise in Medicine— Cardiac Exercise Research Group (CERG) at NTNU.

Until now, there has been little documentation of how exercise actually affects arthritic joints. But numerous studies [now] show that high-intensity interval training is much more effective for improving endurance than moderate intensity training.This is true regardless if you’re sick or healthy, young or old. We wanted to see if patients with arthritis could handle high intensity training and see the same positive effects,” says Bye.

After ten weeks of hard training on a spinning bike twice a week, we saw no adverse effects on the study participants (women with arthritis). Rather, we saw a tendency for there to be less inflammation, at least as measured by the inflammation marker CRP, and the participants of the study experienced a solid increase of maximum oxygen intake, meaning that they reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease.” (5)

How do I start an Interval Training program?Now that we know that interval training works, what sort of moves are possible and how do we go about creating our own routine? For suggestions, check out this article, “5-Move Low Impact High Intensity Workout.”

If you prefer to see a workout in action, you may also wish to view this YouTube video that offers a low-impact (not non-impact) 9 minute Interval Training workout.

To start an interval training program from scratch based on a simple walking routine, check out this article, “How to Turn Your Daily Walk Into High Intensity Exercise.”

What about lasting results?

A profound outcome of implementing an interval training program is that it can spark motivation to continue. Anja Bye from the Norwegian arthritis study mentions this in her final analysis. “The women who participated in the study found this to be a good, effective method of training, and are mostly very motivated to continue because of the progress they’ve seen.” (6)

To safeguard your fitness success, consider the following basic tips:

  1. Discuss your plans and options with a trusted medical and/or fitness professional
  2. Be aware of your own mobility and physical limitations
  3. Challenge yourself to find programs that work
  4. Challenge yourself to increase your endurance and training levels in small increments – slow progress is fine
  5. Use a timer to help track your routines and monitor your high intensity cycles (for additional tips, check out this Timer Tips article https://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=19519)
  6. Use EFT to bolster your motivation and results (EFT for Fibromyalgia Practical Guide https://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=20328 and Tapping Into Healing Success for Fibromyalgia with EFT https://www.prohealth.com/library/showarticle.cfm?libid=20076&vote=finished#discuss)

When it comes to fitness, the efforts you make today benefit your tomorrow as well as the days beyond. Here’s a quote to jot down on your fridge or bathroom mirror:

Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”
– Unknown


  1. http://www.newsmax.com/Health/Anti-Aging/intensity-training-HIT-exercise/2015/07/29/id/659453/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941353/ 
  3. http://www.newsmax.com/Health/Anti-Aging/intensity-training-HIT-exercise/2015/07/29/id/659453/
  4. http://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/interval-training-short-workouts-really-pay
  5. http://www.news-medical.net/news/20150729/High-intensity-interval-training-effective-for-arthritis-patients.aspx
  6. http://www.newsmax.com/Health/Anti-Aging/intensity-training-HIT-exercise/2015/07/29/id/659453/

Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.

Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.

Would you like to find out more about the effects of STRESS on your body? Download Sue’s free Is Stress Making You Sick? guide and discover your own Stress Profile by taking the surveys provided in this detailed 23-page report.

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