Aerobic exercise is often prescribed for fibromyalgia (FM) as a non-drug therapy option. Of all the FM people I have asked about this form of exercise, few participate, probably for two very good reasons. One, the energy crunch due to low magnesium and two, the eventual increase in pain levels.

So why exercise?  A few very important reasons. Flexibility. Improved blood flow to supply oxygen and nutrients to cells, muscles, organs and brain (less fibro fog!). Better mood. Decreased stress. More restful sleep.

But does the exercise have to be aerobic? A Tufts University study decided to find out. The recent published study tested 226 fibromyalgia patients in 5 different exercise groups and followed them for one year. Impressive, right? The first 4 tai chi groups comprised 151 subjects with the remaining 75 assigned to an aerobic exercise group. Each supervised group met 2-3 times per week and participation supported with personal and telephone encouragement. 

Surprise! The aerobic group did not fare as well, nor comply as faithfully to the weekly schedule as the tai chi groups. Subjects completed pre and interval (baseline, 24 weeks) fibromyalgia impact questionnaires (FIQ) to assess anxiety, depression, self-efficacy, coping strategies, physical function and limitations, sleep and quality of life. Physical tests such as 6 minute walks and balance testing were also performed. The tai chi groups showed “statistically significant” improvement across all measures. Plus, the tai chi groups who exercised for 24 weeks showed greater improvement than the 12 week tai chi group. Overall, subjects attended tai chi more often than those assigned to aerobic exercise, which probably accounts for the positive results.

The researchers concluded that tai chi treatments thus help relieve FM symptoms more than aerobic exercise, suggesting an alternative to the commonly prescribed aerobic exercise for FM.

Editor’s note: If you can still exercise with FM, good for you! Keep it up. But if you find yourself with post-exercise pain and low energy for days after exercising, you may fall into the category that needs to gently move rather than follow an aerobic exercise prescription. As mentioned, magnesium is critical for energy and most FMers need a RBC Magnesium test to check their levels, preferably before exercising. FMers are also notorious for having poor endurance with repetitive movement such as aerobic exercise. Tai chi, on the other hand, is gentle and addresses fitness benefits of flexibility, muscle strength and balance, important assets as we age. Care to comment? Send your exchange to [email protected]. We'd love to hear if you exercise and what form works for you. 

For more on exercise and chronic conditions, read Exercise, is it for You?

Study Source: Wang et al, BMJ 3/18

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