While fibromyalgia and resistance exercise have often been considered an impossible combination, a new study has found that with a customized program, women can achieve considerable improvements in their health.
“If the goal for these women is to improve their strength, then they shouldn’t be afraid to exercise, but they need to exercise the right way. It has long been said that they will only experience more pain as a result of resistance exercise, that it doesn’t work. But in fact, it does,” said Anette Larsson, Ph.D., whose dissertation at Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden was in physical therapy.
As part of her dissertation, she studied 130 women between the ages of 20 and 65 with fibromyalgia, a disease in which nine of 10 cases are women.
Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread muscle pain and increased pain sensitivity, often combined with fatigue, reduced physical capacity and the limitation of daily activities, the researcher explained.
About half of the 67 women in the study +were randomly selected to undergo a program of person-centered, progressive resistance exercise led by a physical therapist.
The other 63 women made up the control group and underwent a more traditional therapy program with relaxation exercises.
The training and exercises were held twice a week and lasted for 15 weeks.
“The women who did resistance exercise began at very light weights, which were determined individually for each participant because they have highly varying levels of strength,” Larsson said. “We began at 40 percent of the max and then remained at that level for three to four weeks before increasing to 60 percent.”
According to the study’s findings, more than six of 10 women were able to reach a level of exercise at 80 percent of their maximum strength. One of the ten was at 60 percent, while the others were below that figure.
Five women chose to stop the training due to increased pain.
The group as a whole had 71 percent attendance at the exercise sessions.
“On a group level, the improvements were significant for essentially everything we measured,” she said. “The women felt better, gained muscle strength, had less pain, better pain tolerance, better health-related quality of life, and less limitation of activities. Some of the women did not manage the exercise and became worse, which is also an important part of the findings.”
In the control group, the improvements were not as significant, but Larsson noted that even in these women hand and arm strength improved.
The relaxation exercises probably led to reduced muscle tension in the arms and shoulders, which in turn allowed the women to develop more strength, she said.
The findings for the women in the resistance exercise group are affected by several factors, including the degree of pain and fear of movement before and during the exercise sessions, according to Larsson.
Progress for the group as a whole is largely attributed to the person-centered approach, with individually adjusted exercises and the support of a physical therapist, she added.
“An interview study we conducted shows clearly that the women need support to be able to choose the right exercises and the right loads,” she said. “They also need help when pain increases. This requires, quite simply, support from someone who knows their disease, preferably a physical therapist.”