To workout when you have chronic pain is something you may dread. More than anything.
You already have pain.
So getting up and knowing you are going to make it worse, is a terrible truth to face.
If you do get up, and are motivated enough to workout, it feels like it almost kills you, because you re-injure your injuries, or you are in a lot of pain the next day.
So now you begin to develop a fear of working out.
Because every time you workout, your chronic pain flares up afterwards. And not the good kind of pain where it is just soreness.
I’m talking about the feeling of your body tearing apart. Spasms in areas you didn’t even know could get spasms. And just walking for the next 2 or 3 days is nearly impossible.
I Get It
It felt like I failed so many times that because of this, that I gave up.
I started telling myself that I COULDN’T workout because of my chronic pain. That it was just how it is.
I couldn’t workout because my chronic pain was too bad.
And with that, I became a victim.
A story / excuse I kept telling myself, in order to protect my sense of self, so I could avoid failure again and not have to deal with putting myself in more pain.
Until one day, I woke up and realized the story I was telling myself was crap.
I couldn’t live like this the rest of my life. I have many more years left, and I was not going to spend them cooped up in my house, being in more and more pain each day.
What kind of life is that going to be?
I was done letting my body tell me what I could and couldn’t do the rest of my life.
It was time to re-write my story, because I was NOT going to live like this anymore.
I control my body, not the other way around.
Where I Started
For years, I lived in pain due to work injuries, car accident injuries, and disabilities I was born with.
My neck, back, knees, and left foot felt like a nightmare I was living with every day.
After the most recent injury left me off my feet and going to doctors 4 times a week for a year, I gained so much weight, I was coming close to 300lbs!
Anytime I moved, I was short of breath. I couldn’t even walk from the kitchen to the living room without feeling short of breath and feeling pain.
We always had to stop our activities and go home because of me. Because I couldn’t do it.
And that was hard to know I was the reason we stopped our fun.
And I would spend an entire week, on bed rest and on pain pills, because something was flared up and I couldn’t move.
I always had depression and anxiety, but this made it 10x worse. Because I was not only embarrassed at myself for being so heavy and not able to move much, but I was scared to be around people because I feared being judged and criticized.
It really sucked how often I got the “feedback” on how “concerned they were for my health”, like I wasn’t already thinking about it.
Where I Am Now
Today, I did my 4th day of Insanity by Beachbody (If you don’t know what that is, it is probably the most intense workout program on the planet).
I don’t have any kind of pain reliever in my house, even over the counter.
I haven’t been bed ridden in months.
And a couple of weeks ago, after an extremely long walk, we turned back because MY HUSBAND couldn’t go any further, not me! First time that has EVER happened.
I can’t tell you how amazing that feeling was to know that.
So Did My Pain Disappear?
I still have my pain, but it decreased from like a 9.5 to a 2! (If you have been to the doctor for those pain scales, you know what I am talking about!
I rarely have bed ridden days anymore, and it is longer and longer between instances.
Doing the exact steps I talk about below changed everything.
I built muscle up around the pain areas, which was a life changer, because now when I move, those newly muscled areas move me, not the pain areas. Which is why I am not in as much pain anymore.
I learned the biggest mistakes I was making before and what to change.
I learned how to manage my pain areas after each workout, so I could get back up the next day and do it again.
Methods to Manage My Pain After Workouts
Before I go into the steps I took, I think it’s important to tell you some of the things I used to help me each day while I was working out to avoid being bedridden:
- Taking warm shower to loosen the muscles after each workout
- Drinking Yogi Joint Comfort Tea ( I can’t promise it works for everyone, but it seems to help me!)
- Using my Tens Machine to massage around the pain areas (This small, affordable machine is a MUST have for anyone who has pain. I linked to the one I have personally)
- If I need a deep massage for my back, I use my Brookstone Percussion massager, which works amazing! I linked to the one I have.
- My husband will hand massage my pain areas if I need super deep in one spot, so see if your partner can help you through this process!
- Soak in an Epson Salt Bath. The magnesium is a natural pain reliever and will absorb in your skin.
- Depending on the type of pain I am having, if I still am hurting after all that, I will usually rub Mineral Ice or Biofreeze on the area. Sometimes, I may do an extra round of the tens machine.
- I will usually wear my ankle support brace after each workout as well.
When I started out, I was taking Aleve each day when the pain got bad. Luckily, I was able to bypass this most days with the other means I mentioned above. Which was perfect because I know long term use can hurt your organs and you can grow a tolerance.
So what steps did I actually take to get from being bed ridden for weeks to doing Insanity?
My Chronic Pain Workout Steps
1. Be Patient
So here’s the thing: Stop listening to what others say you should be doing. You will get there, but you aren’t there yet.
That was my problem.
I knew I was supposed to do cardio for 45 minutes a day or a half hour or whatever everyone is saying. So I would immediately jump right in and try to jog, or do the elliptical, or go into a full 45 minute workout routine.
Don’t be like I was. Be smarter.
I was in chronic pain and near 300lbs. I hadn’t used these muscles in years. So that’s crazy to jump into that. Even walking for more than I was capable of was crazy.
So I had to start off slow. Painfully slow. So slow, it almost felt like I wasn’t doing anything at all.
So if you want to workout while you are obese, in chronic pain, or both, you need to give yourself time to work up to it.
Be patient with yourself.
2. Physical Therapy
Don’t skip this section. I’m serious.
I already know some of you are groaning and saying physical therapy doesn’t work for you.
I know, because I was one of those people.
If you have pain issues, chances are you went to physical therapy.
I lost count of how many times I have been over the years. I keep saying I don’t want to go back, but then I keep finding another doctor who can “cure me”, and their process involves physical therapy.
The last time I went, I realized something that was different than every other time.
I actually did the homework stretches the physical therapist gave me.
I realized, when I did the stuff at home like I was supposed to, it kept my muscles loosened up, so my next session, the PT could get deeper and do more.
When I wasn’t doing the home stretches, the physical therapist would have to do the same thing over and over each session, so I never actually got better.
Waste of money, huh?
So in doing the homework every single day, multiple times a day, it helped me be able to stretch the areas around the pain, so I could begin building muscle around it.
So if you have been to physical therapy, get out the old homework you were assigned and start doing stretches. If you don’t remember it or have it anymore, and you can’t afford to go back, go on YouTube and look for specific stretches for ‘herniated discs in the neck’ (example).
Do this before anything, because you need this to build everything else on.
I did this for about 2-3 weeks before I moved to the next step.
3. Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
I highly recommend to eat anti-inflammatory foods and meals.
This has done amazing for me in being able to heal faster and have less pain. Because I was willing to try ANYTHING to feel less pain, doing this is what ultimately gave me the push towards learning how foods can heal, because this worked so well.
This includes eating less sugar (check out How to Eliminate Your Sugar Cravings to find out how!) because sugar is a major inflammatory when it is processed in our bodies.
It includes looking at labels to make sure you aren’t eating chemicals (Check out Why Your Food is Making You Sick and Fat to find out what to look for and why this is a big deal).
And adding in the good stuff like Omega 3s, Magnesium, Vitamin B1, Calcium, Potassium, Vitamin C, , Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin B12, Fiber, Antioxidants, among others.
I highly recommend to meal prep healing and anti-inflammatory soups, like my Slow Cooker Anti-Inflammatory Soup and my Healing Turmeric Cabbage Soup, which are soups I eat every day for my lunch to make sure I have the energy and anti-inflammatory properties to have a better and less painful day.
Two years later, I still do these things and I believe it makes a world of difference.
4. Begin to Walk
Start off your workout slow to build up muscle resistance without a whole lot of your chronic pain flaring up.
Begin to walk for 30 seconds at a time every hour (if you were at my point of barely able to breathe, otherwise start off at a low number you know you can do).
Once you stop feeling like you are out of breath and it is easier, up it to 45 seconds. Once you have that down, go to a full minute.
Basically add 30 seconds each time until you no longer feel out of breath and can move easier.
Hitting the First Goal
Once I hit 10 minutes at a time, I started doing it once or twice a day (while still moving around a couple of minutes every hour).
I then started increasing my time by a minute on top of the 10 minutes, each time I felt it was easy to do.
This was my tactic until I reached 45 minutes a day and could move on to the next step.
You think I would be ashamed to admit that between step 1 and completing this step, it took me a full year to get to 45 minutes. But I’m not.
I started at 30 SECONDS, and ended up doing 45 MINUTES. I deserve a medal with how much of a difference that is!
So don’t feel guilty that you should be doing more in less time. Because you are making huge strides!
They just don’t seem huge because you are taking baby steps to build your muscles slowly, so you don’t have as much pain.
5. Add in Light Cardio
Once you reach the 45 minute mark for walking, then add in some very light cardio.
Trust me, you want to reach the 45 minute walking goal before you do this, otherwise you will feel like you are going to die and your muscles will feel like they are ripping apart.
For my light cardio, I started swimming at the local gym and at the city’s community center (I did not realize those were a thing! So check out your city’s community center to see what they offer! Mine was super affordable, only $2 a day or $20 for the month).
I would also pick up the pace on my walking to where I was power walking.
Some other ideas are doing fun and light workout videos that don’t involve jumping, like line dancing videos or someone in the Stronger with Thyme Facebook group mentioned yoga flash cards for beginners.
I highly recommend to start doing the light cardio every other day (while doing the 45 minute walks the other days), so you aren’t pushing your body too much and building more muscle.
Once you feel like this part is really easy and you aren’t sore anymore, go on to the next step.
6. Add in Higher Cardio
Once you are ready for this step, it’s time to kick it up a notch.
I still recommend to do the every other day routine that I mentioned in the last step.
You will want to kick it up by swimming laps as fast as you can and begin doing the elliptical (remember, it’s okay if you can only do a few minutes starting out!), ride a bike or stationary bike at a pace you can handle.
Add in some core exercises that can strengthen your core, so you use that to move you instead of your joints as much.
One thing I highly recommend is to not jog or do any jumping during this step. Especially if you are over 200 lbs, because it can really hurt your joints and tear your muscles.
Once you feel like you can accomplish all this without being out of breath and having your chronic pain flare up, it’s time to move on to more difficult things.
7. Add in Regular Workouts Without Running or Jumping
Ready for more?
Let’s talk working out like normal people (kind of).
This is the time you are going to really want to build up your muscles. But do it slowly, just like we did the walking!
Add in light 5lb weights and start working on your shoulders, arms, and do squats.
For weights, do 5-7 reps of each exercise starting out, and increase gradually until you can do 3 sets each, before you increase your weight.
If you want to do normal workout videos, I highly recommend Zumba.
It’s a fast paced dance, that you will have a blast doing. There is no running, no jumping, and your heart rate will be in cardio mode the entire time. And don’t worry if you can’t do the dance moves like they do on the tape, because your heart rate will still be up and you will enjoy laughing at yourself!
So use this step to step it up!
Do the dance workouts, power walk, go longer or up the resistance on exercises you are already doing. Find activities like softball, volleyball, rock climbing, or anything else they offer through your local gym or community center that you will enjoy doing!
Two years later, after completing these steps, I just did my fourth day of Insanity by Beachbody.
Now, I want to make clear that I am not able to do all the exercises exactly how they do (YET).
I go slower than they do, and anything that requires jumping or floor, I just do that same exercise against a wall, or do the exercise without jumping.
I’m okay with that, because even their own people on the tape struggle to keep up!
I may not be pushing 300lbs anymore, but I am still overweight, so don’t want to do the jumps yet, until I know it won’t put me out of commission. I will get there though.
My heart rate is still in cardio mode and I sweat buckets, even though I am doing “easier” versions of many of their exercises.
I complete the entire video each day doing it this way. I feel stronger and sore, but the good kind of sore.
Make Your Body Listen to You
One day, I will get to where I can do the entire Insanity videos, doing the exercises exactly how they show them on tv.
I’m not there yet, but I am closer than I ever have been.
All it takes is telling yourself that you don’t want to experience the only life you have living the way you are.
You want more. You want to feel great again.
I may not be running or jumping yet, but I’m almost there, and I know I can make it, despite all the issues I have in my spine. Because I am determined and completing each step to get to that point.
I went from barely able to walk to the kitchen to doing cardio workouts and Insanity! That’s HUGE!
Because this is MY life. And I determine how I should live and what I’m willing to put up with.
I listened to my body tell me I couldn’t for years.
This time, I am making my body listen to me, a little bit more at a time.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and describes how I was able to exercise with my chronic pain. Individual results may vary. Please discuss your exercise plans with a medical professional to see if it is right for you.