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If you feel pain—or even worry you might—chances are you flinch or freeze to try to avoid it. But over the long term, holding still won’t help you heal. Medical researchers and doctors now say that moving your body is one of the best long-term pain relief strategies. In fact, physical activity may be one of the first things your doctor recommends—sometimes even before prescription painkillers. Here’s what you need to know:
For chronic pain, physical activity may be more effective than pills.
Painkillers, also known as opioids, are often a first choice for short-term pain (caused by an injury, a surgery, etc.), but the jury is still out on whether they’re the best option for more chronic conditions, such as low back pain, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, among others. (A 2016 review of 20 studies on lower back pain found that the long-term benefits of opioid medication are still unknown.)
Regular exercise fights pain in many ways.
If you ache because of joint trouble—in the form of arthritis, injury or surgery—you can fix a number of problems through physical activity. Stronger muscles can take pressure off your painful joints. Exercise also builds up bones, which could stop future injuries before they happen. An added side benefit is weight loss, which can both ease strain on joints and reduce pain-causing inflammation. Want to know more? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines how exercise helps people with arthritis.
The simplest moves can have big results.
The goal isn’t to run a marathon—or even join a gym. Need proof? This 2014 study published in the Journal for the American Medical Association found that six weeks of regular at-home exercises gave patients recovering from hip fractures better function and mobility than similar patients who got nutrition advice but no workout plan.
Exercise can even change the way you feel pain.
In a recent study, Australian researchers found that people who rode a stationary bike at a moderate pace for 30 minutes, three times a week, had much higher thresholds for and ability to tolerate pain than those in similar physical shape who chose not to exercise.
Want to give it a try? Talk with your doctor about how physical activity—whether in the form of physical therapy, a regular walking routine, yoga, or another plan—can play a role in your recovery. To help get the conversation started, check out the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ suggestions for exercise after lower back pain, or the CDC’s recommendations for physical activity for arthritis.