Movement As Medicine

Let’s Revisit Pacing

In late 2017 I wrote Pacing for Beginners. That article still holds true, but I want to revisit the concepts. In the years since, I have talked to many people. It is obvious that people do have Movement As Medicine or exercise recommended to them to help manage their conditions, especially in relation to pain management. A common thread I have detected is those same people aren’t given any guidance in how to use movement or exercise as medicine. I’m going to stick with movement for the rest of this article as not only can the word “exercise” seem daunting to some, it also implies a “heavier” workload than I am suggesting.

It is worth mentioning at this point, I learnt about pacing at the Barbara Walker Pain Management Centre. There are not enough of these pain management centres around the country, sadly.

This graphic represents what happens if you don’t keep your body moving. None of us want this. These changes increase pain.


People relate to me that they did a really good four kilometre walk but know they will now be stuffed for two days. I cringe. NO, NO, NO – do not do this! This is NOT Movement as Medicine! That is setting yourself up for failure.

I will be the first to say using Movement As Medicine requires very great care. I have a strong suspicion many patients (without the benefit of having attended a pain management program) dive in too drastically initially, find they hit the Boom/Bust cycle, then get turned off the concept of movement altogether. Not surprising really. My rheumatologist still says to me “and keep up the exercise”. Great – but he is not a movement consultant – he doesn’t tell me HOW.

I can imagine a patient without any other guidance taking the “get exercise” advice too literally and trying to do the exercise they used to do before they became unwell. That definitely will not work. Unless you are very, very lucky. Most of us are not that lucky, or we wouldn’t be sick in the first place.

It is impossible for me to paint a picture that covers everyone in one article, so please think about your own condition while reading my illustrations. Inflammatory diseases are notorious for being worst when we wake up. Movement sees us gradually thaw out. Whether this is to the point of no pain at all or somewhere along the spectrum depends and can vary from day to day.

At the moment I have one finger that is being particularly problematic. I have to splint it at night to prevent it locking. In the morning when I wake up it is very painful. If I did not use that finger in any way, it would stay painful and get worse, be worse the next day. And the next. I apply a heat pack to it. I stretch it. I massage it. Ultimately I have a pain free finger for the rest of the day. Yes, I do think it needs a steroid shot, I just haven’t had time to organise that, so in the meantime I’m using Movement As Medicine principles. Plus one finger is a good small example.

A contact on Twitter told me the other day she is currently doing 250 steps every hour. Many readers may think “why bother”. I congratulated her. For many of us, that would be a darn good starting point. We are not setting out to climb Mt Everest, we are trying to manage pain – completely different objectives! If 250 steps in your starting point, that is what it is!

In my original 2017 article linked above I talked about the mathematics involved. I suspect mathematics turns people off too, but it is critical. Here is what I said in 2017.

Let’s assume for the maths that like I could, you can walk five minutes before you experience discomfort. It is very important to know your starting point. Smartphones have easy calculators: the keystrokes for the below example are 5 + 4 = 9 / 2 = 4.5 * .8 = 3.6.

The important point here is just because you CAN do 5 minutes, that is NOT the starting point.

  1. Take that five minutes as your Test 1 measurement.
  2. After a suitable rest, do a second Test. The Test 2 result might be four minutes.
  3. Add 5 + 4 = 9. To find the average of your two trials: 9/2 = 4.5 minutes.
  4. Now you need your baseline, your official starting point. This is 80% of your average. 4.5 * 0.8 = 3.6 minutes, or 3 minutes 36 seconds.
  5. Increase at a rate of 10% from your baseline. 3.6 * 1.1 = 3.96 minutes. Let’s just call it 4 minutes!

Each day (or week depending on the type of activity) you increase by 10%. JUST 10%. On your calculator that is “current time” * 1.1 = “new time”.

10% a day increase is reasonable at a 5 minute walk, but for longer durations and other activities, the increase should be spread over a week.

Two factors control your Movement As Medicine activity. The duration AND any perceived change in your body during the activity. If you feel an increase in discomfort, you STOP! You do not push through. The mathematics apply to durations and also to increasing weights and other aspects. For example, the leg press. I will increase at 10%, so from 100 kgs to 110 kgs. Admittedly, it can be fiddly to find the right weights. Increasing from 50 kgs, you need to go find the 5 kg weights. Once at 55 kgs, there is no weight to allow you to increase to 60.5 kgs. In some cases the mathematics have to result in “as close as we can get”.

I’ll use my shoulders as an example of knowing when to STOP. Towards late 2021 my shoulders played up to the point I needed ultrasound-guided steroid shots in both shoulders. It was around the time my first biologic stopped working for me. Swimming definitely helps me keep my shoulders pain free BUT I am very, very careful about listening to my shoulders as I swim. If either of my shoulders starts to feel painful, I stop. That’s all the swimming I’m doing today, even if it is less that I did last time. I do not push through.

Shoulders are a good joint to talk about because I may have a degree of discomfort for the first lap – stiffness from lack of use. Over time you learn to recognise the difference between the discomfort that disappears during warmup and the pain niggle you might get after several laps that tells you to stop. Those two things feel very different. Swimming is something where you can’t reduce your range of motion, as you can in the “on land” remedial shoulder exercises I also do. So stopping is important. No, do not do another two laps to round it up (I’ve been known to do that). With the on land remedial exercises, I can reduce the range of motion or reduce the resistance – if that is then a pain-free movement, I will continue.

This article has covered just a few examples of NOT rushing in where angels fear to tread. Movement As Medicine is not about “doing what you did before”. It takes care and planning to get it right.

Other Recommended Reading:

Published by

Robyn Dunphy

I offer exercise guidance to those with chronic medical conditions where exercise is beneficial.

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