Fibromyalgia: Can exercise help?

December 1, 2011

Let me start off by saying that I know this is a huge debate in the Fibromyalgia community.  I am sharing the following information because more and more, lately, I have been involved in discussions on the subject and I have read Facebook posts about Fibromyalgia.  I have 2 people in my life, that are very dear to me, that are inflicted with this ailment, so I know, firsthand, how tragic it can seem (be).  Below, is a story about a wonderful woman that I worked with over a 6 month period, to help her manage her pain and get her life back.
While managing a gym in Phoenix, AZ, I had the opportunity to help a lot of women with different physical issues, but the one lady that stands out the most, and the one that I feel I was able to help the most, was a 48 year old named *Linda.  Linda had Fibromyalgia.   She came to me in a wheelchair and in constant pain.  We sat in my office and she cried while telling me that she was in so much pain that she couldn’t see how in the world she was ever going to be able to work out.  But, her doctor had told her that she needed to move in order to help her condition (this woman lucked out in the doc dept., because most of them are more apt to just prescribe drugs and call it a day, just my opinion).  I told her that I would make her my personal responsibility, and that I would do everything in my power to get her out of that wheelchair, if she was willing to put in the work necessary.  She smiled for the first time and told me that her life was in my hands.  We hugged, cried a little more, got her signed up for a gym membership, and made an appt. to get her started the next day.  I told her to bring a bathing suit and towel, because we would be starting in the pool.  She wasn’t happy about that, but I assured her that it was the best place to start.  So, she agreed and I walked her outside to meet her husband.  Below, I’m going to briefly outline the training I put her through over a 6 month period.  And I can tell you, with much joy to this day, that at the end of the 6 months, Linda was happier than she’d been in years and her pain had been reduced by at least 80% and she was not only out of her wheelchair, she was stronger than she’d ever been and was at the point of regularly participating in weight lifting and all cardio equipment in the gym.
1.  For the first few weeks, I put Linda through a series of body movements in the pool.  The goal was just to get everything moving.  Without gravity, she was able to freely move all parts of her body.  Now, understand, that at first, she was in pain while doing this.  After being immobile for quite a while, her whole body was very stiff.  So, the first step was to just move.
2.  For the next month, we focused on water exercises, walking in the pool, kicks, arm circles, underwater ab crunches, pushups against the pool wall, leg lifts, squats, etc.  Again, at first this hurt, because now I was asking her to not just move, but to start utilizing her muscles to improve muscle tone and to bear a little weight while moving, albeit in the pool.
3.  We continued in the pool, but added very light weight lifting in the gym.  We started with only about 5 minutes.  Each time she came in, we’d pick 2 muscle groups, for instance chest and back, or biceps and shoulders.  I had her lift the smallest dumbbells at first, sometimes as little as one pound, because our objective was to get her used to “gravity” movements.  At first, this was excruciating.  But, after the first few sessions, her body understood what she was doing and it adjusted (as it does at each step of the process).
4.  After the first 3 months, I slowly added a little weight-bearing cardio, we started on the treadmill and eventually moved to the stairclimber. (Today, I would recommend starting with the elliptical machine, but back in the early 90’s, no such machine existed yet, at least in my world).  When starting the cardio portion, we went as little as 3 minutes and slowly increased, until she could do 20 minutes at a very easy pace.  Then, we’d increase the intensity, while backing the time up, and then slowly increase the time again.
Now, I will stress, that for the entire 6 month period, I always started Linda out in the pool.  The reason for this was to get her body primed and ready the the work out on the gym floor.  People with fibromyalgia need to take their time preparing their body for training, if you jump right into weights or cardio without getting everything moving in the pool first, pain may happen.  But, you have to judge for yourself, what you’re ready for.  Linda was an extreme case, like I said, she came to me in a wheelchair.  At the end of the 6 months, she was off 90% of her medications, only taking a pill very rarely when needed.  Her doctor was ecstatic.
Obviously, I am not a doctor, but I can tell you from experience that if you get yourself or the person that you love moving, it will be the best gift ever.   Working thru the initial pain is crucial.  I promise, that every day that you/they work out, you/they will feel better, in mind and body.  Remember,  never work out 2 days in a row, though.  The body will need a recovery day after every workout.  Eventually, 2 days in a row will be feasible, but I wouldn’t recommend it for at least 4 months.
The last thing I will include for you are some websites to check out for info. on Fibromyalgia.  Check them out, share the info with whoever may need it, along with the above story, and get moving!  Back in the 90’s, while working with Linda, Google didn’t exist yet.  Oh, how easy it is, these days, to find a plethora of information, thank goodness!  I also included a website about diet restrictions when dealing with Fibromyalgia.  the research is ongoing on this subject, as well, but I think the more information given, the better.
Also, I would strongly advise speaking to your doctor before starting any form of work out program.  Print out the articles I’ve provided, tell him/her my story, get them onboard to help you through this process.  And good luck!
Best Wishes,

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