Extreme Exercise

Here’s the exercise conundrum.  First, it’s established without a doubt that exercise helps pain relief for people with fibromyalgia.  Second, exercise hurts both during and after. Third, once people with fibromyalgia start to hurt, it takes a loooong time for the pain to ease up.

I’ve tried a bunch of different exercises.  Pool exercises seemed promising.  I love being in a pool.  The water is soothing on painful joints.  I could run in a pool when I couldn’t run on land.  Gravity was pulling me down and fastening me to the ground – pools release gravity’s hold.  However, unless I only do very light exercises, like float around on my back and examine the sky or ceiling, swimming increases pain and fatigue, my joints swell. It doesn’t stop me from getting in a pool every chance I get, however.

Gentle stretching was the order of the day for awhile.  So was marching in place (I was in marching band in high school… it was a theory).  I got a mildly recumbent exercise bike (now passed on to my son), a miniature step-master type thing that fits nicely in my closet, exercise bands.  I walked with my dog every night until she got doggy dementia and kept losing her way.  Nothing has helped on a consistent basis with the possible exception of when I was on a streak of power walking with a friend.  Then the friend moved to Florida.  Something about shoveling snow….

Now I’m doing extreme exercises twice a week in Crossfit, and I’m surviving.  I’m running, rowing, lifting weights, squatting, push-upping, leg levering, medicine balling, kettle belling, and dozens of other things – getting stronger one muscle at a time.  In case you’re wondering, it hurts.  Horribly.  The warm-ups feel like workouts, and halfway through the workouts I want to die, pass out, or throw up.  I haven’t done any of that.  This is doable.

One of the main reasons I’m succeeding here where I haven’t before is the social aspect.  I’m a lazy bum!  If no one is telling me to get that one last burpee in, I’m not going to.  There is something about a dynamic atmosphere of a gym that keeps you moving.

The primary reason, however, is that I’m now addicted to another type of pain – the type that comes for a reason.  I love it when my shoulder hurts and I can say OW – oh wait, that’s because I dead-lifted 125 lbs for the first time last night.  I’ve always told my doctor I can handle any kind of pain that I know will eventually go away.  It’s the relentless pain that is impossible to handle.  And the relentless pain is diminished with extreme exercise, particularly when there is a lot of aerobic exercises in the workout.

So why in the world are exercises that are pretty much opposite of what any doctor has recommended working?  Yes, consistency is good. I have kept at it and will continue (I committed to 8 months and have to pay whether I go or not – I’ll get my money’s worth in).  But there has to be more.  Are there chemicals that are released in greater strength during exercises?  Maybe I’m experiencing endorphins for the first time.  Maybe it’s a dopamine thing.

Ellingson et al (see library) have demonstrated that exercise can actually enhance the brain’s natural pain fighting mechanisms at least temporarily.  They are going on the theory that fibromyalgia is essentially a central nervous system disorder.  Exercise on a regular basis could (taking their research a little further than they intend) essentially retrain the brain to react to painful stimuli differently.

Like fibromyalgia itself with its myriad of symptoms, the cure is not going to be as simple as beating yourself up at a gym in the hopes of fixing the way your brain or central nervous system reacts to pain.  I suspect exercise induces not just neurological changes but also chemical changes, especially since so many chemicals and hormones have been linked to fibromyalgia.  However, exercise – as extreme or light as you can handle – is without a doubt a management strategy if not a cure.