Pain, exercise and mindfulness – Part 3


In parts one and two we reviewed how pain can put us in a spiral of inactivity, gradually reducing strength and stamina which can limit function and lead to secondary pain from inactivity.  Exercise designed right can reduce pain by improving mobility and strength, yet too much exercise can increase pain.    Mindfulness has been shown to reduce pain.  When we combine exercise with a mindful mindset, we are more likely to make movement a tool for helping with pain.

When exercising to lose weight, we can get focused on burning more calories and getting enough steps each day.  This focus makes it tempting to ignore signals that the body cannot tolerate that amount or type of movement.  Add to that all too popular  “no pain no gain” approach and the use of competitions or challenges to boost motivation.  These are just a few of the ways popular approaches to fitness promote ignoring your body rather than listening to it.

Many people want to lose weight in order to reduce pain.  While weight loss may help to some degree in some cases, we need to look at what happens in the body with weight loss.  The fact is that weight loss without exercise promotes muscle loss. Muscle loss means less support on those painful joints that are trying to tell you they need more support.  This is one way weight loss alone could make the pain worse, not better.

Pain research is telling us that when we ignore pain, the body only speaks louder to get our attention, in the form of more pain.   If we practice ignoring pain while losing weight,  we are missing out on the benefits mindfulness offers to help us quiet the pain signals.    Mindfulness does not mean focusing on the pain, it is shifting mindset about the pain.  Three qualities of mindfulness are paying attention with:

  • Curiosity:  when we shift to curiosity, we move away from frustration about the pain and the temptation to either push past it or let it keep us from moving at all.  Instead we can try moving lightly at first and be curious about how to move in a way that could reduce the pain.  If you are an “all or nothing exerciser”, this can take some practice. However, the shift is key to getting out of this cycle of doing too much, ending up in pain and then moving less.
  • Openness:  This means being open to trying different approaches to and types of exercise. It means being open to learning about what your body needs right now,  letting go of comparing yourself to what you did in the past or what you think you should be able to do now.    Openness means focusing on what your body can do now as the way out of the exercise and pain cycle. For example, stretching may not burn a lot of calories, but it may be a way to start moving on a regular basis and build up your body’s movement tolerance so it is ready for more movement down the road.
  • Kindness:  Mentally beating yourself up while you exercise (or paying someone else to push you) can actually be keeping you in a pain cycle.  Think of how you would treat someone else you care about, a pet or a small child, who is in pain.  You would want to do what you can to help.  That is the attitude of kindness you can apply to yourself when you exercise.  The interesting thing about research on self-kindness is that is leads to more motivation, not less. Kindness does not mean letting yourself off the hook or being too easy on yourself. It just means you will work with your body rather than against. it.

The research is becoming more and more clear that movement and mindfulness both promote healing.  In order for these two resources to work together though, we need to shift how we approach exercise for weight loss away from pushing the body to burn calories and sculpt it into the shape we want to using exercise as a resource for taking care of this body we are trying to help through weight loss.  Just like anything else, it takes practice.  Practice exercising with a mindset that is curious, open and kind you will begin to find ways to use exercise t  help yourself feel better not worse.

Keep Moving, Be Well,


These weekly blogs are general guidelines. These guidelines apply to patients who are cleared by a physician for the type of exercise described. Please contact your physician with any concerns or questions. Always report any symptoms associated with exercise, such as pain, irregular heartbeats, and dizziness or fainting, to your physician.

Please share these posts with anyone you know interested in losing weight with or without weight loss surgery.  Click here to learn more about the UMass Memorial Weight Center

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by | December 11, 2017 · 7:19 pm

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