Fearless Fitness: An Exercise Guide for People With Chronic Pain

Approach exercising with confidence and ease by resetting your mindset, redefining your idea of fitness, and mastering the fundamentals.


Please note: The following article represents the opinion of the author, William Richards and is not necessarily representative of Curable. Please talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

When it comes to exercise and pain, are you ready to shift your thinking from a fear-based approach to one of confidence? As an exercise professional and chronic pain sufferer myself, I hope I can provide you with a few simple exercise concepts that will  empower you to create your own definition of exercise, and ultimately put you in control of your body.

To start, how do you currently view exercise? Do you see it as something that is only for “healthy” people? Do you see it as something you only do when your body is pain-free? Do you see it as this “solution” to chronic pain that everyone is talking about, but doesn’t seem to be a reality for you?

There are a lot of factors that go into our view of exercise:

Each of these is very real for so many people with chronic pain.

Unfortunately, these factors have deflated any confidence we might have in our bodies to experience a free and active life... on our terms.

Exercise is like art.  It’s something you will mess up and then sometimes get right all at the same time. You need to understand that is ok. If you approach it with the right mindset regardless of how you feel, what operation you have had, or diagnosis you have been given, the freedom and confidence in your body will be yours for the taking.

Let’s jump into 3 actionable concepts anyone with chronic pain who longs to exercise can grasp and apply to their life.

Concept #1: You are in complete control.

Unlike other things in our lives - such as work and daily responsibilities - exercise can almost always be done on our terms and in our way. When you’re at work, things like stress, fatigue and work satisfaction are all at play, which affect the way we feel. Unfortunately, not all of us have the ability to just up and quit our jobs if it causes us stress, so we often feel stuck. This feeling can seem like never-ending fuel for the chronic pain symptoms we experience.

When using exercise as a tool to work towards more confidence in your body, YOU set the standard. Which means you can come and go as you please, and do as much or as little as you want. And guess what?! It’s 110 percent okay and it's the BEST thing for you.

For people with chronic pain, unrealistic standards and pressure to hit certain exercise goals, expectations and achievements can actually have a counterproductive effect. When navigating the brain-body connection, we need to feel safe and “in-control.” I remember when my pain was at its peak. The mere thought of going to the gym and doing one of my old workouts would send me into a major fear cycle. This fear would keep me out of the gym because of the standard I had placed on my workouts: if the workout wasn’t hard enough, intense enough, or long enough then I felt it was just a waste of time.

I see this same mindset in people with whom I work today.

Once I can get clients to accept the beautiful freedom that can be found in “starting over” with their definition of exercise, they find they feel empowered and excited to start. They are encouraged to see what they can do. The things that once invoked pain and fear now have no hold on them, and they can love exercising once again. This may mean doing exercises differently than they had previously. However, many find that their new methods even better and more enjoyable! They have a new outlook on exercise and a new standard that really works.

Take Away: Try not to measure your current strength and health against some previous ideal of yourself. It will make you feel powerless and out of control. When picking your exercise strategy or routine, the goal is not to measure how hard the workout was, but rather how much you felt like you were in control of your body.

Concept #2: Ignore the fitness ads, and do what YOU can do.

Over my career, I've learned that those who don’t have a good coach or trainer end up getting their exercise information from advertisements and health magazines. This is true regardless of whether or not they have chronic pain. The problem with a lot of this information is that it’s not realistic or a good benchmark on which to base what you should be doing. Let’s be honest: who doesn’t want a flat stomach in 21 days, or washboard abs in only 6 minutes a day, or our butts lifted with 3 simple exercises? But then we look at the exercises that go along with those promises, and we rule out half of them due to how we know they will affect our symptoms.  This deflates us and makes it feel we can’t have those things.

That is why you need to tune those things out and stay focused on what you and your body are telling you.

Recommended exercises:

These are starting points that open up our mind’s view on exercise and allow us to do more in the long run. Feeling confident in our ability to do the “small things” that may feel like mountains to us is a big deal. You should never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Take Away: Redefine what exercise is to you and be willing to cut yourself some slack. Be okay with your “workouts” not necessarily starting in the gym or looking like what fitness articles define as a “workout.” Let your mind and body feel safe and protected before you start cranking it up in the gym.

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Concept #3: Master the fundamentals.

Everyone has what I call their own personal pain cycle. This is the cycle of events, actions, and thoughts that we have or do that keep us on the never ending  cycle of symptoms we experience. There are a lot of factors that make up this “pain cycle” but some of the biggest ones I see are a lack of understanding around a few key fundamentals.

How confidently do you breathe?

This is something that gets    chronically  altered due to stress and anxiety. As we get more and more stressed, our breathing gets more and more shallow and inconsistent. Oxygen is powerful , especially when it comes to reducing fear, reducing stress and allowing the muscles in our body to relax. Learn to breathe and breathe well. It is helpful to find ways to work more meditative breathing into your health strategy. I'd heard this being preached for years, but I never considered myself one to meditate - so I never tried it out. Wow, I wasted a lot of time and pain not giving it a shot. Today, I am sure to incorporate it as simply and often as I can.

How confidently do you move?

Chronic pain and its symptoms often alter the way we move due to what I call our "protection mechanism," this is our body’s natural way of preserving itself and making sure we are not causing more damage. This includes limping to protect a bad ankle, not raising your arms above your head due to an old shoulder injury, not bending over or flexing the spine due to fear of back pain or feeling the need to be stiff and contracted in order to maintain good posture and a safe lower back.

To combat this protection mechanism we focus on learning healthy hip hinging habits, pelvic control (whether or not you can find and build habits around a neutral pelvis) and how well we use and can stabilize our shoulders while we do activities.

How well do you engage and use your core?

What we don’t want is to build unhealthy habits when it comes to core strength. The trunk (core) is there to protect our spine and give us stability with movement. But when fear is involved, we build a bad habit of thinking that MORE stiffness and constant contraction is what we need to prevent pain and injury. This is wrong.

Yes, we want a strong core but more focus should be around core coordination - how we use our core during certain activities and when to “tune” our core brace for the activity that we are doing.

Take Away: The goal is to be able to fall in love with the simple aspects of moving and challenging your body. We want to be able to do this with as much control over our pain as possible. Remember: years of "working around the pain" have created bad habits. Make it a goal to undo them by releasing the fear and worry.

Instead of focusing on what really matters, our society, magazines and a lot of trusted fitness professionals want us to skip steps and do what everyone else is doing like loaded squats, deadlifts, various barbell and dumbbell exercises, CrossFit or other high intensity styles of training. And while these ways of exercising are not bad in and of themselves, we can’t just follow what “everyone else” says or does.

All of these types are training are attainable, and should be goals of those who comfortably and safely define their “exercise” involving such methods. But for most of us battling chronic pain, having confidence in the basics is one of the most powerful versions of exercise you will ever experience. When you build confidence at the foundational level, stress is reduced and confidence is increased.

Redefine what exercise is for you and allow yourself the freedom to set new standards for yourself. Whatever they may be, set small attainable goals of exercise and remind yourself that your body is strong and capable of doing more than what you might think. The more you explore and the less you try to protect, you will experience the breakthrough you never thought was ever possible.

About William Richards, Founder of Fitness 4 Back Pain

After rupturing his L5-S1 disc over 8 years ago, William was told that surgery and pain meds were my only option for a "pain-free" life. He made a choice as a fitness professional to relentlessly pursue the truth as to whether or not exercise could truly be the secret to getting relief. After 10+ years coaching in the fitness industry he now focuses the majority of his time time teaching people how to pursue their own path to back pain relief - free of drugs and surgeries. Aside from coaching you can find William on the Gulf Coast of Florida, surf fishing with his 2 kids and wife, or eating Mexican food. He can be found on his website.

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