How low-impact exercise can improve chronic pain

March 1, 2021

low impact exercise for chronic pain

Gone are the days when your doctor would tell you to stay in bed and rest when experiencing chronic pain. You definitely won’t hear that from us at Southside Pain Specialists! While we have many treatment options, including wonderful new technologies, taking an active approach to daily living is often very beneficial.

Exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you have chronic pain, but low-impact exercises that have been cleared by your doctor and/or physical therapist can make a huge difference.


Exercise is a common treatment for chronic pain. More specifically, low-impact workouts are typically the best exercises for chronic pain. Depending on your current state of health, it may help decrease inflammation, increase mobility, and decrease overall pain levels.

Physical activity results in the release of natural endorphins (chemicals in the brain that enhance mood) while also easing pain signals. Regular exercise helps improve sleep quality and may result in a reduced need for pain medications.

There are many benefits to exercise, but some specific ones for chronic pain sufferers include:

It helps keep your muscles strong and joints moving well.

Strong muscles support your body and bones better, which is especially important when you have chronic back pain. Your spine needs help in cushioning your movements and supporting your weight, so you should keep your back and core muscles in good condition. Joints are also often a culprit of pain flare ups, and moving them regularly can greatly improve these conditions.

Staying active is good for mental health.

If you have chronic pain, you may also struggle with depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and other mental health issues since it’s difficult to live life as you once did. Staying active can help boost self-esteem and make you feel like you’re doing something to take control over your pain. Exercising with friends or joining a gym are good ways to motivate yourself and enjoy the social benefits of exercise.

Research shows that both chronic pain and a lack of exercise can cause stress. Stress inhibits the body’s ability to heal and care for itself. Reducing stress can be difficult with chronic pain, but exercising will consistently help while also improving your overall condition.

It helps maintain a healthy weight.

Extra weight can add to your pain, particularly if you have chronic back pain. By making healthy nutrition choices and staying physically fit, you can maintain an appropriate weight.

Extra weight exacerbates chronic pain in surprising ways that can also impact other areas of your health. Here’s how:

  • Increased Mechanical Stress: Carrying excess weight puts additional mechanical stress on joints, particularly in the lower back, hips, knees, and ankles. This increased load can lead to accelerated wear and tear on the cartilage, leading to conditions like osteoarthritis.
  • Inflammation: Adipose tissue (body fat) is not inert; it secretes inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines. Chronic inflammation can worsen pain conditions and contribute to the progression of diseases like osteoarthritis.
  • Changes in Posture and Gait: Excess weight can alter a person’s posture and gait, potentially causing musculoskeletal imbalances. This can lead to increased stress on certain joints and muscles, resulting in pain.
  • Hormonal Changes: Adipose tissue can affect hormonal balance. For example, in obesity, there is an increase in certain hormones like leptin and a decrease in others like adiponectin. These hormonal imbalances can contribute to inflammation and pain.
  • Nerve Compression: Excessive weight can compress nerves, especially in areas where there’s a lot of body fat, such as the abdomen. This can lead to conditions like sciatica, where pressure on the sciatic nerve causes pain, tingling, and numbness.
  • Poor Circulation: Obesity is associated with reduced blood flow, which can impede the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to tissues. This can lead to increased pain, especially in areas prone to poor circulation.
  • Psychological Factors: Excessive weight can lead to psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety. Chronic pain conditions are often influenced by a person’s mental and emotional state, so psychological factors can play a significant role in pain perception.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Obesity is often associated with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. Poor sleep quality can lead to increased pain sensitivity and decreased pain tolerance.
  • Limited Mobility: Excess weight can make it more challenging to engage in physical activity. Reduced mobility can lead to muscle weakness and further exacerbate pain.
  • Comorbidity: Obesity is associated with several comorbidities, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. These conditions can also contribute to chronic pain.

It’s important to note that these factors can interact in complex ways, and the relationship between weight and chronic pain is not always straightforward. However, managing weight through a combination of a balanced diet and regular exercise can often help alleviate some of the pain associated with these conditions. It’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice and treatment options.


Before starting any kind of new exercise, we recommend talking to your doctor or physical therapist. We can make sure your plan is appropriate and advise you on how to get started and how to progress. Here are the types of low-impact exercises that are often beneficial for our patients:

  1. Walking — This low-impact aerobic activity is safe and effectively provides the muscles with oxygen. By increasing circulation, exercise often decreases pain and stiffness. You can do it pretty much anywhere, anytime; no equipment necessary. Walking 30 minutes 3 to 5 times per week can help increase strength, endurance, and heart health. If walking is challenging for you, start slow and work your way up to longer walks as you get stronger.
  2. Swimming and water aerobics — Gentle exercise in warm water often helps decrease chronic pain symptoms. This may be due to the low impact on the joints and muscles in water based workouts. If you don’t have a pool of your own, many gyms offer water aerobics classes.
  3. Stretching and yoga — Stretching and yoga are often valuable exercises for the improvement of chronic pain. Maintaining good posture, gentle stretching, and relaxation exercises are helpful pain-reduction tools.
  4. Strength training — Strength training can ease chronic pain and benefit overall health. Higher muscle strength can sometimes take pressure off of joints. It is important to start slowly and build strength gradually to prevent injury.
  5. Activities of daily living — Sometimes more formal exercise isn’t possible for a variety of reasons, but making an effort to increase everyday activities and perform daily chores can also make a big difference in pain levels. Routine activities, such as doing laundry, getting the mail, cooking, bathing, and dressing are great home exercises that incorporate movement throughout the day.

Importance of Physical Therapy

Inactivity leads to stiff muscles, decreased mobility, and decreased strength. These effects can worsen the symptoms of chronic pain. Engaging in a regular exercise routine can help you manage your symptoms and improve your overall health.

A physical therapy regimen guided by a trained healthcare professional will also help you develop proper posture for your new strength training exercises. Posture is crucial in avoiding injuries while building strength.

This is why we recommend an exercise program for all patients. Let us know how we can help you come up with an appropriate exercise plan!

Don’t Ignore Pain Signals

The point of adopting a new exercise program is to improve overall help and reduce chronic pain, not make pain even worse. This is why you should still pay attention to pain signals during a new regimen. This is true even for exercises approved by your doctor.

Ignoring pain signals when starting a new exercise regimen for chronic pain can have detrimental consequences on both short-term comfort and long-term progress. Pain serves as a crucial communication from the body, signaling potential overexertion, strain, or an underlying issue.

Ignoring these signals may exacerbate existing pain conditions, leading to more severe discomfort and potential injury. It’s essential to approach exercise with mindfulness, starting gradually and listening attentively to the body’s responses.

This enables the development of strengthening exercises that support pain relief and overall well-being, fostering sustainable progress towards improved physical health and quality of life. Remember, respecting pain signals is a fundamental step towards a healthier, pain-free future.


With highly specialized training and a multitude of pain relief options, Southside Pain Specialists follow the standards of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, The American Board of Pain Medicine, and the International Spinal Injection Society. We work hard to provide patients with comprehensive, caring pain relief when they need it most. Check out our website or contact us today at 205.332.3155 to learn more.