There is no point in pretending. This is not a good time for anyone who suffers from chronic pain. Perhaps you will be feeling a bit anxious or depressed because of the seemingly never-ending lockdown. Then the weather is bad, indeed if it is snowing or icy you may feel it is dangerous to go out at all. Stuck in the house, feeling a bit worried and a bit bored is common for so many people at the moment. Doesn’t sound great, does it?
The truth is this can often be the time you least want to do any exercise.
Yet it is even more important than in summer, I’ll explain why in a bit. But it might be that just reading that is making you shout at me through the computer. “But Dr Sue, I’ve got enough on my mind at the moment. I really do not want to do something I don’t have to do.”
Would you like to feel better all day?
Perhaps I can persuade you. What if you could be pretty sure that even a brief exercise session first thing in the morning could make you feel better all day? That would be good.
I am going to try to prove this to you with a bit of science about how the body works. And I hope I can convince you it is worth making an effort to exercise and that the benefits are immediate.
Why working out outside can feel harder.
Getting out in the fresh air is good for us all. There is proven evidence that it raises our mood.
But it can feel hard in January and February.
Apart from the obvious problem of trying to drag yourself outside on a cold dark morning, your muscles can suffer if you workout in the cold. And of course, if you are exercising to ease chronic pain then you can end up in worse pain than before, which is truly awful.
In cold weather your muscles are under more pressure and so are your joints. So, if you feel more pain you are not imagining it, and you should treat it as a warning. The reason you might feel more pain is this: in cold weather we lose our body heat faster and this makes our muscles contract. This causes tightness in the muscles and they do not move as easily or as fluidly. Your joints will also get tighter and this can lead to the nerves being pinched up, which is another source of pain.
On top of this the cold just makes everything in your body have to work harder. So, a 15-minute slow walk in winter can feel like an hour’s fast walk in the spring.
How to protect yourself when exercising outside in winter
So, that’s the bad side. On the good side there is lots of evidence that exercise is good for you and exercising in the fresh air is even better. So, it is worth preparing and getting out there if the weather allows it and you can. Warm clothes are an obvious essential. Remember hats and gloves; you lose a lot of heat through your head and hands. Do a bit of a warm up, stretching especially, before you leave the house, that will protect your muscles and your joints. It will also raise your heart rate and that will help keep you warm when you are out.
Don’t push yourself further than your body wants to go. Remember your aim is to feel better, not to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. If a good walk is what makes you feel better both mentally and physically then do that and forget about targets, aims and improvement schedules. It is what suits you, not what other people think which counts here.
Treat fitness apps with caution.
I want to say a word about fitness apps here. They can be fantastic if you are the sort of person who likes to set yourself goals and targets. But the apps designers make money by constantly getting you to take on new challenges: the next level; the high point on the graph and the rest. It is a constant journey with new and ever harder goals. That is what is slightly addictive about apps. Nothing wrong with that if you like that sort of thing and find it motivates you. But if it just makes you feel stressed, and even worse, if it makes you push yourself beyond what feels right for you, it is not good. So, use apps with care, or ignore them and just do what feels right to you.
Indoor exercise counts too.
I said at the beginning that there are times, especially in the middle of a pandemic, when you just do not want to be going outside. Sliding over on the ice, damaging muscles or even worse, breaking a bone and ending up in hospital is something we all want to avoid at any time. But now we should try extra hard to keep safe.
Try indoor workout programmes
So, if things are snowy, slippery and dangerous outside you can use inside workouts. Technology is your new best friend here. There are so many apps, or Youtube videos to choose from. Many of them are free. You can put them onto your phone or even cast them to your TV.
What indoor exercise is best?
One great thing about indoor workouts is the huge range of choice. If you suffer from chronic pain it is best that you go for exercise which is low impact.
Exercise which develops your strength is good. This does not have to be done with fancy weights, you can just use your own body weight.
Strengthening your core will also help your balance. This is good for everyone, but it can be exceptionally beneficial if you suffer from the sort of pain which makes you rely on one side of your body or means you avoid putting pressure on certain body parts.
Exercises for flexibility are also very good, try out Pilates or yoga. If you are a beginner then you might want to start with chair Pilates, which is extremely gentle but will increase your strength and flexibility.
You should also try to build in some workouts which raise your heart rate and improve your cardio-vascular health. This could be on an exercise bicycle, for example or just some high-leg marching on the spot.
Try to mix and match your exercise. This will give you a better all-round work-out and it will give you variety, which will keep you interested and enthusiastic.
Five fantastic benefits of exercise if you suffer from chronic pain
Okay, so I hope I have proved to you that you can do some exercise over the winter, even if the weather is bad. If you try it you will find it makes you feel better. Here are some of the benefits of regular exercise in dealing with your chronic pain:
- You will increase strength and flexibility. This means your body will move more and more easily. That feeling of seizing up because of your pain will decrease.
- Your circulation will improve. Often if you have chronic pain it can have knock-on effects on your whole-body system and mean you are not functioning at optimum level. Exercise can combat this.
- You will find it easier to reach and to maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts a lot of strain on the body and can make your pain worse.
- You will feel more in control. This is good in itself, and it can have a great knock-on effect. It makes it a lot easier to develop healthy habits in other areas. If you exercise and start getting into a good routine and enjoying it, you may find it is easier to do other healthy things as well. Giving up smoking, eating more healthy food, cutting down on alcohol will all feel easier.
- Just as, if not more important, are the mental health benefits. Exercising sends a message to your subconscious that you are in control and you are worth putting time and effort into yourself and your own well-being. The exercise will release feel good endorphins in your brain and that will lift your mood. It is also a wonderful cure for boredom, and we all feel a bit bored at times when we are locked down. Last, but not least it gives you a healthy coping mechanism if you have a bad day. Try doing an extra session of one of your chosen exercises rather than pouring a glass of wine, hitting the biscuits or lighting a cigarette.
I hope this helps you get through these difficult times. I know from some of the clients I see at my psychology and hypnosis pain clinics in Bedford, Milton Keynes and online, that starting exercise can lead to a permanent change. If you haven’t exercised for quite a while, it would be wise to speak to your GP first. You may well find that you start the summer, vaccinated, ready to take on the world and with a great new healthy habit of exercise.
I wish you the very best luck.