How to Exercise with Pain

Summary: 

Pain is your brain’s way of alerting you there is a problem in your body.  Pain adds an extra layer of stress to everyday life, making it more difficult to find your way out.  This whole person effect of pain shifts your physiology to a state that slows healing!  A whole-person plan for managing pain is the way to shift your physiology back to the state where healing happens.   This guide gives you three science-based steps to reducing pain by shifting your whole-person physiology back to the state of healing through the powerful combination of movement science, mindfulness, and kindness.  

What is pain?

There are many different types and causes of pain.  Whether you stub your toe, experience muscle soreness, have arthritis in your knees, or have chronic back pain, pain is a sign something needs to change.  It is your brain’s way of getting your attention, to alert you that there is a problem in some part of the body.

  • Acute pain is the initial stage of pain. When there is damage to a part of the body the nerve cells in that area send signals through your spinal cord to the part of your brain responsible for regulating that part of your body. Your brain sends a signal back with a level of pain that matches the level of threat to your wellbeing.
  • Chronic pain is much less straightforward and scientists, although making great strides, are still trying to figure out why pain sticks around, gets worse and spreads, even after the damage in the body is repaired.

Why use a whole-person approach to rethink pain?

The role of movement in healing pain

What most pain scientists and doctors do agree on is that rest and avoiding activity is no longer helpful advice. This is for two main reasons why we need to Rethink Pain: 

  1. “Motion is lotion” is the more common term now, to remind us that movement can promote healing when it is used well.  
  2. Your body is a use-it-to-keep-it system. When pain limits movement, you lower the functional skills of strength, stamina, and motility, which further limits your ability to move and creates a downward spiral of loss of function.

When we rely on the old saying ‘no pain no gain’ it leads us to believe exercise needs to be painful, especially at the start.  I hear many people saying that soreness is good because they feel like they did something.  What scientists now know is that that saying was never meant to say you need to be in pain to make progress.  It was simply a slogan to let athletes know that if they want to win, they are going to have to push through pain and might even have to endure injury. That’s just part of competing.  

If your ‘why’ for exercising is not to win competitions, flip the script to ‘pain is a sign something needs to change’. Why?

  • Faster results:  Muscle soreness creates more work for your body to heal, slowing the process of growing stronger.  When exercise leaves you feeling better in your whole-person, that is the feeling of healing!  You shifted your physiology into the state where more energy goes into healing, growth and learning. 
  • More Motivation: Pain as a result of exercising drains motivation.  Your brain is hardwired to avoid what makes you feel worse now and choose what makes you feel better now. Experiencing pain when you start exercising tells your brain exercise is something to avoid. This is why so many people say getting started is the hardest part.  But it doesn’t have to be! When exercise is something your brain knows will make you feel better now, you are tapping into its natural motivation for you to thrive!

Exercise Science: Align with your design

Exercise is most likely to reduce pain and become a habit for whole-person health when you move the way you are designed.  You knew how to do this as an infant.  Moving as designed is hardwired into your cells.  Unfortunately, popular exercises have strayed from this science.  Exercises to tone or burn more calories and fat are based more in marketing science than movement science.  How do you know the difference?

  1. Start light and progresses gradually.  Your body gets stronger the same way a plant does.  When you are just starting, your body does not have the equipment needed to exercise at a high intensity and long durations.  Like a small seedling, if you give it too much water and sunshine at the start, even if those are good for the plant, it will not do well.  Give it just enough of what it needs plus the time to grow, and it will thrive. You are the same way!  Avoid pain by starting with very light intensity and do small bouts of that movement.
  2. Build on a foundation of muscle memory for moving as designed.  The basic formula for moving with the greatest strength and least strain is to start every movement with these three steps. Your body knows how to do this but may have forgotten over time.  My FREE Be Well Now course on my app gives you step-by-step videos for restoring this muscle memory at the natural pace of growth for your body.
    1. Your natural alignment
    2. Core engaged for support
    3. Hinge at joints of arms and legs.
  3. Adapted for what your individual needs.  Proper form is often used to describe the right way to exercise. But every body is unique.  You are the only one who can feel what your body is telling you about whether you are moving in a way that will be healing, or not. Your Inner Trainer™ is your absolute best guide to knowing if an exercise is right for your body.
  4. Balance the three skills needed for daily life.  There is no one best type of exercise, nor can one type do it all.  Your body needs the skills of mobility, strength, and stamina for activities of daily life.  Each one of these uses your body systems in different ways.  One type helps the other but one does not replace the other.  I find pain is often reduced when all three types are practiced in the right balance, following the first three steps listed above.

Getting back to these science-based basics of exercise is the first step to using motion as a lotion for reducing or preventing pain.  But there is one more exercise science principle that needs motivaiton science to help it work!

The Spiral of Inactivity

The body is built on a use it to keep it system.  The secondary challenge when you encounter pain is that when you stop moving,  there is an immediate and rapid loss of strength, stamina and mobility.  As I mentioned above, these are the three skills needed for the movements of daily life.  The loss is often not noticed until you go to do something again and your body lets you know through shortness of breath, stiffness, and fatigue.  This is what is called the Spiral of Inactivity.  Move less, lose strength stamina, and motility, and the result is less comfortable with moving which leads to moving less.  

How does this physiology tie into the psychology of motivation? Your brain is hardwired to avoid what makes you feel worse instantly, and repeat what makes you feel better instantly.  Pushing through pain to get back in shape after an injury can improve your physical fitness, but your brain remembers this thing called exercise does not feel good. It will throw excuses at you to avoid it the first chance it gets!

Physically and mentally feeling worse as a result of being in pain is what scientists are discovering is the chronic pain mindset.

Chronic Pain Mindset Reset

When you are living with pain for a while, such as when you have fibromyalgia, your brain starts to imprint a sort of ‘warning label’ on the parts of the body that are painful.  You might have expressed this as favoring or protecting a ‘bad knee’ or being worried you will end up wiht a back spasm if you do too much.   This is your brain taking care of you, just like you would instinctively protect a small child or a little puppy.  It’s normal, but studies show the levels of pain people experience when they have chronic pain does not match the level of injury at the site of pain.  This tells us the brain needs a reset after an injury just as an injury needs rehabilitation. 

That brings us to the next two elements for whole-person healing; mindfulness and kindness

Mindfulness as a resource for reducing pain

When you are experiencing pain, the last thing you want to do is be where you are.  The messages that pain is a sign of progress when you exercise are based on misinformation and can lead you to believe you need to push through pain to feel better. But pain scientists are finding that ignoring pain can raise pain signals.

Mindfulness has become a well-accepted tool for not only managing but also reducing pain. Paying attention to the signals from your body rather than ignoring them lets your brain know you got the message.  Scientists believe ignoring pain tells the brain you didn’t get the message and it needs to send a bigger pain signal to get your attention that there is a problem. This reinforces that ‘warning’ part of your brain that is overprotecting the area of injury and keeping you in the spiral of inactivity.  

But listening to the pain is not easy, which is why we need the third component of our whole person healing triad; kindness!

Self-compassion as a resource for reducing pain

When you experience pain, it is normal to feel frustrated and angry.   Pain is no fun and it limits your ability to enjoy life.  When it’s chronic, the quality of your life seems to slip away. This reaction to pain, although normal, can add ‘insult to injury’.  It puts your whole person in a physiologic state of stress.  In this state, energy is redirected to fight against a threat. But when you have pain, that threat is your own body.  You can easily get pulled down in an emotional downward spiral too. This is the “Second Arrow”  and it lowers the energy for healing.

You have two choices at any moment you are in pain: 

  • a. Resist the signal by ignoring or being angry at the pain and the storm of emotions that go along with it, keeping you in a state of stress.  
  • b. Let the signal alert you that your whole person is in a state of healing and needs your assistance to continue and start moving back into the physiologic state of being well, where healing happens. 

Self-compassion is a key component of mindfulness. This ability to meet yourself where you are, and respond to pain in a way that lets your brain know you are listening gives you the best chance of helping your body put energy into healing.  

The powerful combination of movement science, mindfulness, and kindness for your personal pain solution

When you put these three tools together, you have a complete, whole-person way to align with your body’s natural healing process by using the three steps of the Be Well Now method:

  1. Mindfulness:  become aware of what is happening in your whole person. The sensation of pain, the self talk, muscle tension in other parts of your body, etc
  2. Kindness: respond as you would when someone you care about is in pain; with empathy and kindness
  3. Movement science: Movement helps your lymphatic system clear inflammation. This is your immune system’s response when there is harm to cells. The purpose is to remove the threat and start the healing process. Inflammation is an important part of healing and thus reducing or eliminating pain. Movement is one of our best anti-inflammatory agents. The gentle squeezing of your muscles against lymph vessels are what gets your lymphatic system moving. This is how it does its job to filter your blood to remove anything harmful that your body does not need, so it can be removed by your kidneys and liver.  When you move the way you are designed, with mindfulness and kindness, you can help your body with this natural healing process.

The three ways to use movement for whole-person healing

There are three responses you can use to help move fluids in your body from the site of injury.  This allows inflammation to do its job and lets your whole person know it can put energy into healing and repair.  Try each of these with mindfulness so you allow your body to tell you which works best.  Do it  an act of kindness, knowing your body is trying to help you and you not going to fight against but are participating in this healing process:

    1. Gently touch and rub the area that is in need of healing, with the same kindness and care you would show someone you care about.
    2. Move that area with a gentle, slow range-of-motion movement.
    3. Gentle squeeze and release of muscles in a certain area

Rethink Pain: Your personal pain solution:

1. Your Why. Start with understanding how you think about and respond to pain. Simply notice how you think about your body and areas of pain. If you push through pain, notice where that came from. If its from being an athlete in the past, know that served you well for that game.  Notice what your ‘why’ is now for exercise.  If it’s for the game of ‘life’ and ‘aging well’ the rules have changed.  Pain is now a sign something needs to change.    Consider what is most important to you now about reducing pain.  Use that as a reminder to listen to the pain and take a whole-person approach.

2. Learn before you leap:  Before starting to exercise, learn skills for mindfulness, self-kindness and science-based movement. With this solid foundation, you will be ready to use these three skills to boost whole-person healing.

3. Start Well: When you start moving, continue to come back to the foundation of these three skills.  When you experience pain, it’s time to go back to that foundation of moving as you are designed with mindfulness and kindness.

Rethink pain by learning how to use movement science and mindfulness

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