I’m underwhelmed by all the “cures” out there for chronic aches and pains. But there is, and always has been, that one thing that really does work… exercise. I asked Paul Ingraham, a health science journalist and copyeditor for ScienceBasedMedicine.org
if he would write about exercise and more specifically to the point that even just a little can be hugely beneficial. Paul is a former Registered Massage Therapist in Vancouver, Canada, and the creator of a large and informative website, SaveYourself.ca, offering hundreds of free articles and several more detailed self-help ebooks about common pain problems like muscle knots and low back pain, as well as overuse injuries of particular interest to readers here: runner’s knee, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis.
Do something! Anything! Exercise is easier and better for you than most people realize
by Paul Ingraham
What helps chronic aches and pains? How do you recover from injuries or prevent them? I’ve been helping clients and educating readers for over a decade now, and I’ve come to a disappointing conclusion: most of the best tips are the “boring” ones. There are lots of big promises and tasty myths out there, but it’s the unsexy options that are actually safe, cheap, easy.
Not every obvious option is worthwhile. Stretching doesn’t actually prevent injuries, or much of anything else that people hope it does. Drinking extra water is a pointless and even dangerous fad. Most vitamin supplementation and nutraceuticals have failed every test for benefit. Repetitive strain injuries aren’t even actually “inflamed,” and so popular treatments like ibuprofen are amazingly useless. And so on and on.
But other basics are vital: smokers really do need to quit smoking (it makes pain worse, like everything else). Insomniacs actually do need to fix their sleep. Obviously uncomfortable work stations need to be made more comfortable, hot baths are still the most basic comfort for muscle pain, and simple self-massage will probably do more for muscle knots than anything else.
And moderate exercise. Oh, exercise! Best of them all: the king of the self-treatment hill.
Less is not less: exercise in small doses
It’s simple and easy. Virtually any exercise will do. You don’t have to be “hard core.” I have fantastic news for you: exercise benefits are easier to obtain than you thought, and less is not much less, or not proportionately less. Nearly every stitch of science for ten years has confirmed this.
Here’s just one example: an excellent little Scottish experiment from 2009 gave us startlingly “good news”, showing that it may be possible to get really fantastic bang for your exercise buck. They found that only a few 30-second sprints on a stationary bike — intense but quick and only twice per week — may be nearly as effective at preventing disease as much more time-intensive traditional (cardio) exercise programs.
Exercise “nuts” are welcome to their nuttiness, but they have a serious diminishing returns problem: their first hour of exercise is getting them about 75% of their benefits for the week, maybe more. The rest is thin gravy.
So please do not avoid exercise because you think you have to do a lot to make it worthwhile. A short walk is a very great deal better than nothing. Training regimens and/or exercise classes are appropriate for athletes and the athletic, but if you are bit of a couch potato, those are probably the last things you want to do, and they’re doomed to failure. What, then? Basics: start walking or cycling to work, take the stairs instead of the elevator, take the batteries out of the remote, et cetera…
Another great reason to keep it easy: repetitive strain injuries are a huge category of unnecessary injury, largely the result of amateur athletes doing more exercise than they need to. The plot thickens.
And why bother?
The evidence is overwhelming: moderate exercise is not just fantastic for your body and long term health, but your brain as well.
Which, in turn, means that (moderate) exercise is good for pain. Just as exercise science is relentlessly confirming that less is not much less, pain science has been busy confirming that the severity and chronicity of pain has much more to do with the function of the brain and spinal cord than we ever thought before. And exercise seems to help both the body and the nervous system.
A sedentary lifestyle is a major aggravating factor in many injuries and pain problems, and particularly problems caused or complicated by myofascial pain syndrome (muscle knots).
A lack of exercise or variety of activity generally impairs circulation and the vitality that is needed for healing, but it also constitutes an irritant in itself: sitting is stressful for many tissues, for instance. An increase in activity is an important pre-requisite and support system for healing.
So do something. Anything!