Overcoming Exercise Obstacles

For many sufferers of chronic pain, the prospect of an exercise routine can be daunting. But if done right, there’s an activity for everyone.
Published November 17, 2015

We all know that exercise is a crucial part of maintaining good overall health. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week. 

We also all know that if you’re not used to exercising, getting into the habit can be hard. But millions of Canadians have extra hurdles beyond motivation: It’s hard to work out for any length of time if you suffer from back pain, joint pain, or other physical conditions that can knock exercise clear off the priority list.

Indeed, for many people with a new injury, or a new diagnosis, it can be tempting to be cautious and reduce your amount of activity. Yet, in most cases, exercise is still an option, and in some, it can also actually be beneficial, provided it’s approached the right way. So, whether you’re suffering from joint pain and arthritis, back pain, or you’re carrying extra weight, we’ve outlined some gentle ways to ease yourself into an activity program. It goes without saying, of course, that you should always consult with your physician before starting, or making changes to, an activity program.

Joint pain

The human body is composed of hundreds of joints, without which we couldn’t walk, turn our heads, or hail a taxi. However, we tend not to notice the impact these precious body parts have on our everyday lives until they begin to hurt. “Joint pain can be caused by injuries, overuse, muscle tension, trauma, or other conditions like arthritis,” says Andrea Metcalf, an expert trainer whose specialties include fitness for older people. “When someone has joint pain, their exercise goals may suffer.”

Those with arthritic joints may find their condition especially painful. “Arthritis is a progressive disease of the joints in which smooth cartilage that covers the ends of the bones gradually wears away,” says Dr. Calin S. Moucha, associate chief of joint replacement surgery in the department of orthopedics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The condition is caused by a number of factors, including genetics and lifestyle; and osteoarthritis, the most common type, leads to stiff, swollen, painful joints.

Exercise options

Cycling and swimming are two great options. These activities are particularly beneficial to those who suffer from joint pain because they preserve joint motion and muscle tone, says Moucha. Swimming also harbors a specific advantage over dry-land activities: no obvious signs of sweating! “I hate to sweat,” says Susan Anderson, a Weight Watchers Community user, who swims about three times a week in spite of an arthritic knee. “[Swimming] is the one exercise that I love to do.”

Excess weight

Carrying a significant amount of excess weight can make exercising truly challenging, which is a hard truth for those starting a weight-loss plan. “The additional size of limbs and torso can dramatically influence one’s ability to move the related joints through a normal range of motion,” says physical therapist Tom Purvis. “Furthermore, the additional body weight makes all activities ‘weight lifting,’ and fatigue ensues more quickly.” In addition to affecting the joints’ range of motion, extra weight can negatively alter the alignment of the joints. Physical activity, if not approached correctly, can then exacerbate the condition.

Exercise options

Pool exercises, walking, and Pilates are great ideas. “These three, based on the individual’s needs, can provide effective results without putting unnecessary stress on the body,” says Los Angeles-based Pilates instructor Gia Marakas. Pool exercises and walking are gentle on the joints, while Pilates, which can be performed exclusively on a mat, helps build strength and muscle elasticity. As it focuses on building the core muscles and using them to assist with other types of motion in the body, the overall effects, once a Pilates exerciser has been practicing for a while, can help reduce stress on individual body parts.

Purvis maintains that a person carrying a significant amount of extra weight can take advantage of any number of physical activities, so long as the action is controlled (slow and steady to avoid injury) and performed with appropriate progression (no need to take on too much activity all at once). “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” says Purvis.

Back pain 

It comes in many forms (lower, middle, or upper back pain) and has many potential causes (stress, heavy lifting, bending the wrong way in yoga class, etc.). “Most people at some point in their lives have back pain,” says exercise physiologist William Sukala. “Most of it being self-resolving with rest and removal of the offending cause for a few days.” Back pain conditions range from acute to chronic and vary in intensity from a mild annoyance to a can’t-stand-up-or-bend-down situation.

Exercise options 

Since there are so many varieties and causes of back pain it’s essential to check with your doctor before engaging in any type of exercise, lest you make a bad situation worse. A good rule of thumb however: if it hurts, don’t do it. “The acute vs. chronic question is going to make a difference as to which exercises can be performed and which should be avoided,” adds Sukala. “If it’s something more severe, the person needs to be seen in consult and have further work-up for treatment options.”

Workout Ideas

As well as the standby low-impact favourite, swimming, many Weight Watchers Community users with flexibility and mobility issues recommend chair dancing. With classes, DVDs, and a big following, it bills itself as a seated exercise program that improves muscle tone, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. It’s fun, too! 

Many also take water aerobics classes. Hard as it may be to believe, it is entirely possible to break into a sweat in the water — it’s not just visibly discernible.