Joint Pain? Here's How Walking (Even Just 5 Minutes!) Can Help
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
If there's anything worse than pain, it's chronic pain. You know, the kind that you're always acutely aware of no matter what you're doing—and on the off-chance that you're offered some relief from it, the moment is fleeting. You're soon reminded again of how much it hurts, and it makes you want to curl up in a ball and hope that it eases up.
But contrary to belief (and instinct), being active can actually ease your chronic pain. We've been conditioned to think that rest is the only option for recovery—and in some cases, that's true—but for those dealing with joint pain, experts say the treatment is simple: Walk it out.
Why exercise can help ease chronic pain.
How could this be, you ask? The answer is twofold. First, is the cerebral.
"Exercise engages the endogenous opioid system," says Benedict Kolber, a neuroscientist at Duquesne University. "Our bodies make opioids and use these opioids to decrease pain. There are some circumstances in which your body can produce so much of these natural opioids that you actually get some sense of euphoria."
In other words, when we exercise, we trigger chemical reactions in our bodies that result in reduced pain. Also, as you may know, exercise releases endorphins, which improves our mood and perspective and lessens stress. All of this can make pain feel less painful. Pretty wild, right?
Second, exercising—even walking—can actually reduce physical pain (aka it's not all about your attitude). Any physical activity will work, but walking tends to be the least intimidating and easiest for people to commit to doing regularly.
"We get pain signals that are coming from our hands to our spinal cord and up to our brain," Kolber says, "and then we get these control systems—parts of our brain that seem to be activated in exercise—and that then turns down the pain system."
Though he has seen exercise help loads of people suffering with chronic pain, Kolber decided to take it one step further and conduct his own small-scale study to figure out how much exercise one actually has to do to reap pain-relieving benefits.
His study looked at 40 healthy women over the course of a week and monitored their sensitivity to pain before and after periods of exercise (heat and pressure were used to elicit pain). The participants were prescribed 30 minutes of brisk treadmill walking; some did that three times a week, others five or even 10 times. He found that individuals who walked five or more times each week experienced 60% less pain than they reported pre-exercise. Not bad for a walk that takes less time than a TV episode.
What this means for you.
It's likely that the results vary based on the person and pain levels, but it's clear that exercising has the potential to yield some serious pain-relieving benefits—which, if you struggle with chronic pain, probably feels long overdue. Experts advise, however, to start slowly and get approval from your doctor beforehand. If you're new to exercise, start with five minutes of brisk walking per day and work your way up to 30 minutes, five or more days a week.
"Five minutes is very easy to think about," says Kirsten Ambrose, an exercise physiologist. "Small chunks to start with and slowly progressing is the best way to go."
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