Using Natural Movement Instead Of Pain Medication
I’ve suffered from Adult Onset Still’s disease and secondary Fibromyalgia for close to 15 years, that means daily pain and fatigue and lots of pain killers to help me through the day. When I retired 6 months ago I decided that one of my first challenges would be to find an alternative way to cope with the pain, the most successful approach has been natural movement, the more the better, but with important caveats.
The key things that I learned were to keep the average intensity low, but the duration long, to take frequent breaks, but never more than an hour. To take a nap in the afternoon, and to sleep well, but for the rest of the day to combine walking, cycling and swimming with pottering and natural exercises. To do as much movement as possible as a natural part of an active day, rather than inside in a gym, to incorporate strength and stretches throughout the day, rather than in one intense exercise session (which causes me to flare). To spend as much time outdoors as possible, and to move in a wide variety of different ways. To push through the pain, provided that pain isn’t caused by an injury. To listen to my body, avoiding too much intensity, too much fatigue, sometimes taking a rest day, sometimes using my exercise bike when the weather is too exhausting or miserable. All this movement needs to be in balance with the rest of my lifestyle though, which has also been tweaked to help me deal with these conditions.
In summary I’ve found that a wide variety of low intensity natural movement, trumps ‘exercise’ and I’ve been successful in stopping all of my pain medications.
How much natural movement has taken me a while to figure out, but I’ve settled on about 4000 calories a week, excluding pottering around the shops, house and garden, which adds about 2000 more. For me that means about 20 hours a week of intentional movement and another 10 hours of pottering. So that might mean moving for about 6 hours a day, for the rest of the day I might nap for about an hour, read for two hours, watch TV for an hour, and spend the rest of the time, driving, preparing food, eating meals, in the bath and sleeping.
When I’m sitting I will try to keep moving too, moving between in a wide variety of different positions, sometimes lounging, legs extended, on the sofa, sometimes in my recliner, often on the floor getting a scalp massage while watching TV, slouching in my reading chair, or upright at the dinner table. Even in the car I will be moving my arms on the steering wheel, exercising them, exercising my pelvic floor, tensing my legs etc.
Walking dominates my movement, although I try to cycle for a few hours a week and swim for an hour too. I will run up steps and small hills, but I don’t run for extended distances.
I thought it might be instructive to look at a typical day, which starts at 6:30am with a few stretches and 10 minutes of house work, climbing the stairs a few times, squatting to put on my shoes and clean out the cat litter, I will probably also do The Plank exercise. Then it’s out for a 30 minute walk to a cafe where I will sit in a chair and read for an hour. I will then drive 45 minutes to a favourite walking location, that offers loads of variety, including rough paths that have gradually cured my foot pain.
These rough paths, have been very important, the stones press through the soles of my shoes and massage every muscle and joint in my feet. I’ve had a decade of painful feet, but after a few months of these kind of paths (and some of them are much worse than this example) the pain has gradually faded. Sometimes in a flare they get worse again, but a weeks walking generally solves the problem.
The shoes are important too, I wear light weight walking shoes, with fairly thin flexible soles, they are wide and provide lots of ventilation. I can feel the path’s surface through the soles, but I still get some protection. They provide no protection from water, so I generally wear breathable waterproof socks and these have been much more successful than any waterproof shoes I’ve ever tried.
These shoes provide no protection or support to my ankles and I don’t want any, because I’ve fixed my ankle pain too by exposing them to every possible stress and strain, by walking on uneven ground, scrambling around off track, jumping small streams, sliding along slippery paths etc. As with my feet, it’s the huge variety of movement that they’ve been exposed to that’s been the key. Muddy paths and fields are great, but rocky paths are good too.
Next up is the pain in my Achilles tendons, the varied walking has helped these two, but I’ve used two additional tricks. Every day I find somewhere to do heal raises and controlled drops and whenever I can I will take my shoes and socks off and soak them in ice cold lakes and streams to keep the inflammation under control.
Then it’s onto my knees and hips, and for these scrambling off track, climbing hills and steps have been the key. Even a few minutes off the flat paths makes a difference and I no longer have any knee or hip pain.
Walking doesn’t do much for my upper body through, except the natural swinging of my arms, and swimming is definitely my preferred solution to this, but there’s lots of opportunity to move my upper body while walking as well. Rather than go to the gym I will stop at benches along the way and do inclined press-ups against them. I find that I’m only able to do 15-20 because of the strain they put on my damaged wrists, but I do them slowly to compensate.
Then to provide a more dynamic exercise for my arms, I will find a wall to do some clap-ups against, launching myself off the wall and clapping my hands each time, I will try and do 10-20 of these.
I will always be on the lookout for a tree to hang from, hanging is fantastic for the pain in my shoulders, it’s not as good as swimming, but it’s definitely worth the effort. At home I will hang from a bar in the doorway a few times a day and do a few pull-ups too.
On the same benches I use for press-ups I will also do a few dips, at home I will use a coffee table for the same exercise.
Finally I like to get in a few air squats (without weights) there’s a lot of opportunity to do this on popular walks, picking up litter!
Unfortunately this walk netted a full bag.
Half way through the walk I will take a rest break and have lunch for half an hour, the rest is important, as mentioned before ideally the rest will include bathing my feet in cold water, but that’s not always possible.
Then I will drive home, often stopping off to do a walk around a supermarket on the way, and then take an hours nap at home, ideally in my conservatory in the sunshine. Refreshed I will then go for a short cycle ride along the local sea-front to watch the sunset, the cycling provides a great complement to the walking.
Then back at home I will get stuck into the housework, which involves lots of pottering around, running up and down stairs, crouching down, stretching etc, this will be followed by standing up in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. I like to prepare all the family meals from scratch from unprocessed ingredients, many of them from my own garden, all of this movement requires lots of nourishment.
Depending on the length of the walk I’ve done I might have enough energy to go for a swim after dinner, or a short walk into town. I will typically swim for 15-20 minutes doing a mix of front crawl, old English backstroke and breaststroke, which move my shoulders, elbows and wrists through their full range of motion and are great for the legs too.
After swimming I will settle down to do some reading and watch an hours TV, followed by a long soak in a hot bath, ready for bed.
This description isn’t typical of every day, as it would definitely exceed my calorie target if I did this 7 days a week. In fact I try and swim 3 days a week, cycle 4 days a week, do a long hike 3 days a week and walk 15,000 steps every day. Even when I’m just walking around the flat seaside town that I live in though I still try and mix it up a bit, for example I will walk along the top of the secondary sea defence wall
and I will walk/run through the dunes, both providing similar challenges to my feet, ankles, knees and hips.
There’s also plenty of benches to do my upper body work on!
Flares every month provide a bit more of a challenge, but I will still try and keep up a slightly scaled back version of this movement pattern, substituting more pottering around the garden for the long hikes for example.
For more on my approach to dealing with chronic illness, see this post.