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A Brisk Walk Can Ease Chronic Joint Pain

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

brisk walk can ease pain from exercise

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  • If you suffer from a chronic pain disorder, such as fibromyalgia or osteoarthritis, you may fear activity could increase pain or cause damage. However, data show walking may reduce pain as much as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or simple analgesics, and as pain decreases it may increase your motivation to move more
  • Movement has a positive effect on the health of your cartilage, which depends on activity to deliver nutrients. It also reduces stress levels that make you more sensitive to pain signals, improves sleep and raises your sense of well-being
  • By incorporating grounding in your walking routine, you'll also enjoy a greater reduction of inflammation, pain relief and improved sleep from the exchange of electrons between your body and the Earth
  • As with any exercise program, it's important to start slow and stay consistent; even beginning with five-minute intervals and slowly progressing will reap rewards. Reduce your potential risk of a pedestrian accident by using reflective clothing, using crosswalks, staying in well-lit areas and paying attention to your surrounding environment

Although using a structured fitness routine is a part of a healthy lifestyle, what you do outside of the gym every day is also important. In a digital age where many work at a desk all day and commute back and forth to work in car or bus, you may be spending 10 hours or more each day sitting. This level of inactivity increases your risk for cardiovascular disease and early death.

Simply getting up and moving more during the day is an effective strategy against some of the detrimental health effects of sitting too long. A combination of prolonged sitting and inadequate exercise can raise your risk for disturbed sleep patterns, arthritis and premature death from any cause.

In fact, it appears to be an independent risk factor for poor health, so simply limiting sitting as much as possible may be a crucial strategy you use to improve your health and longevity.

Exercise Reduces Pain Without Drugs

For those who suffer with chronic pain disorders such as osteoarthritis, moving can be challenging. Many fear physical activity could increase their level of pain or trigger joint damage that is causing the pain in the first place, thus sidelining their activity. However, researchers have found using the right type of exercise may reduce chronic pain and improve general health.1

In fact, researchers have found the effectiveness of medication for chronic pain conditions varies according to the condition and underlying reason. The use of medications approved for chronic pain generally has produced only a modest effect on pain relief.2

In addition, the overprescription of opioid medications for chronic pain has contributed to the current opioid epidemic. Nonmedication pain relief therapies are rising in importance for chronic pain management as they provide pain relief and are not connected to the side effects of addiction with opioid painkillers.

One effective means of pain control uses physical activity. Research supports this strategy for the reduction of chronic pain, improved sleep and cognitive function, and the reduction of disease risk.3 In one analysis of 46 studies using exercise interventions4 for people with fibromyalgia, the researchers found most participants experienced pain relief.

The researchers found it interesting since this occurred even when the exercise intervention did not meet activity recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Using either exercise, aerobic training or flexibility, participants were able to experience relief of their pain symptoms with low to moderate activity, whether it was swimming, biking, weight training or any of the other exercises in the program.

Pain Relief May Be Dose Dependent

In another study5 in which neuroscientist Benedict Kolber, Ph.D. participated, researchers sought to determine if there was a relationship between the dose of exercise and pain symptom relief. The team used a treadmill walking test with 40 healthy females who were split into four groups.

A control group did not exercise, the remaining groups exercised three, five and 10 times per week. The data showed those in the moderate and high groups exercising five or 10 times per week experienced the greatest reduction in their pain rating. Kolber commented:6

"We asked them to rate that pain. And at the end of the study, they rated the same pressure — the exact same pressure — as 60% less painful than they rated it at the beginning of the study."

In a review of the literature,7 researchers found “a wide range of exercises are supported for reducing pain” in those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. The effects were similar to those participants experienced from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and simple analgesics.

The researchers recommended patients with chronic pain conditions should have physical activity prescribed, stressing activity avoidance may promote the loss of strength and increase physical limitations. Kolber talked about changes to the brain exercise may trigger to NPR, saying:8

"Exercise engages the endogenous opioid system, so our bodies make opioids and use these opioids to decrease pain. There are some circumstances in which your body can produce so much of these natural opioids that you actually get some sense of euphoria.”

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Movement Positively Affects Several Pain Factors

Movement — specifically walking — influences several pain factors. Dr. Virginia Byers Kraus from Duke University, who serves on committees for the Arthritis Foundation, spoke to NPR about the positive affect movement and exercise has on cartilage, essential to protecting large weight bearing joints like your hips and knees prone to damage from osteoarthritis:9

“Movement is essential for nutrition of the cartilage. Cartilage doesn't have a blood supply but does have living cells. So the way it gets nutrition is by dynamic motion — putting weight off and on as you walk and move. The fluid inside the joint flows into and out of the cartilage like a sponge, so all the nutrients in the joint fluid get into the cartilage.”

Kolber explained exercise also helps to reduce pain signals induced by stress. According to the American Psychological Association,10 muscle tension is a reaction to stress and your body’s defense against injury and pain. Stress-relieving activities may effectively reduce tension and improve a sense of well-being.

Kirsten Ambrose is an exercise physiologist from the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance, where she manages multidisciplinary research teams seeking to expand knowledge on chronic pain-related disorders.11 She is familiar with debilitating pain associated with chronic conditions and how some shy away from being active, fearful it will increase their pain or damage their joints.

However, Ambrose recommends patients gradually increase activity under a health care provider's guidance as it improves pain, suggesting they “think about it as a form of treatment — something they can engage in safely and comfortably.”12

The combination of these results suggests while moderate to high amount of exercise is beneficial and may lead to a reduction in pain symptoms, even starting at levels lower than recommended by the CDC you may enjoy positive results. Those results may then motivate you to continue to increase your activity level and experience even greater pain relief and health benefits.

Take Your Walks to the Next Level

While walking and exercise help to reduce pain symptoms from chronic conditions, you may take the strategy to the next level by walking barefoot. What is called grounding, or Earthing, is a phenomenon in which an exchange of free electrons happens between the Earth's surface and your body.

This simple process produces a potent antioxidant effect shown to relieve pain, improve sleep and reduce inflammation. In theory it makes sense, but until you experience it for yourself, it may be hard to believe. It's likely been a while since you've enjoyed these benefits since many spend most waking hours wearing rubber or plastic soled shoes.

These are effective insulators that disconnect you from the electron flow happening when you walk barefoot or wear leather soled shoes, which also allow the exchange of electrons. Some of the best grounding surfaces to walk on are a sandy beach, moist grass, bare soil, ceramic tile, and unpainted, unsealed concrete or brick.

Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona, performed a simple yet classic experiment using sunflower plants, demonstrating the biological effects of grounding on growing plants. One of the primary health benefits of a large influx of antioxidants is the ability to alleviate inflammation and pain.

Grounding influences the viscosity of your blood, so it may be contraindicated if you’re taking a blood thinner. Grounding is a simple concept reaping complex rewards. For more information about how grounding may calm your nervous system and reduce inflammation and pain, see my past article, “Documentary: Grounded.”

How to Safely Incorporate More Movement to Reduce Pain

As with any exercise program, it's safest to start slow. Ambrose13 recommends even for those who experience moderate-to-severe pain, they may start with five-minute intervals and slowly progress. She suggests a walking program from the Arthritis Foundation called Walk With Ease.14

This is a six-week program, including step-by-step instructional videos to help you get started and stay motivated. They provide resources and an online tool to help you record and track your progress. Ambrose says some of the benefits include:15

"It is structured, and it gives people very clear guidance on exactly how to start, how to set goals and how to track their progress so they can learn to walk safely and comfortably and reap the benefits for their arthritis symptoms.”

As I've written in the past, as little as 150 minutes of walking each week, or just 21 minutes each day, may reduce your risk of insulin resistance, improve your balance, metabolism and mood, and reduce your risk of all-cause mortality. To enjoy these benefits, it's also important to stay safe as you're walking.

Reports from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) show pedestrian deaths are trending upward, rising 35% from 2008 to 2018.16 This is happening at a time when the number of traffic deaths from the other reasons are declining.

The GHSA believes contributing factors include the rising number of light trucks and SUVs on the road, an increasing number of people walking and walking at night and unsafe behaviors including speeding, drowsy driving and alcohol impairment.

Pedestrians also contribute to distraction using smartphones while walking. As technology has become accessible, few are willing to live without it, including while exercising. It's crucial to stay alert and focused while walking to reduce your potential for injury. Several more ways to protect your safety include:

Walk with reflective clothing at dusk and after

Don’t assume a driver sees you; try to make eye contact with the driver

Put reflective strips on your bike or pet

Use crosswalks

Carry ID with your emergency contact information

Let others know where you'll be going and when to expect you back

Stay in well-lit areas

Stay alert to your environment at all times

Walk facing oncoming traffic and stick to sidewalks when available

Keep the volume of your music down to hear traffic noise