Chronic Pain & Exercise

Defining Pain

  • Pain is a personal experience that can be influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors.
  • Pain is a protective response and can help you from experiencing further harm or injury (e.g., alerting you to move your hand after touching a hot stove).
  • Although pain is usually protective, it may have negative effects on function and psychological wellbeing.
  • Acute pain lasts for a short period of time, and usually disappears when the underlying cause has been treated or has healed. Acute pain serves as a warning of disease or a threat to the body.
  • When pain continues to persist after the underlying cause has been addressed, it is referred to as chronic pain. Chronic pain can negatively impact a person’s ability to complete their daily activities and can become mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Chronic Pain Management Strategies 

Physical Activity & Exercise

  • Increasing physical activity levels can improve pain, function, and wellbeing across a range of chronic pain conditions.
  • Exercise is considered a safe and effective treatment for people living with chronic pain.
  • It is important that you are assessed by an exercise professional prior to commencing an exercise program.
  • Benefits of exercise for chronic pain include:
    • Improved muscle strength and endurance
    • Increased mobility
    • Increased flexibility
    • Improved sleep
    • Improved mood and reduced stress/anxiety
    • Increased pain tolerance & pain desensitization
    • Improved immune function

Goal Setting

  • Aim to focus more on staying engaged in meaningful activities and on keeping active, rather than focusing solely on resolving your pain.
  • To help identify activities that matter to you, ask yourself “If I didn’t have pain, what would I be doing?” Examples may include gardening, playing tennis, or going for dinner with friends.
  • Once you have identified a goal that you want to achieve, you can use the strategies outlined here, and the practical actions described below, to help you put them into action.
  • For more information on goal setting, click here.

Start Small

  • When starting an exercise, start with an amount that you are confident you can achieve, and that is unlikely to lead to symptoms.
  • This may mean starting at a level of exercise that seems too easy to be beneficial, though this isn’t the case.
  • Starting with a small amount of exercise is also a great way to increase your confidence.


  • Once you become comfortable with the exercise/activity, create a plan as to how much you will increase the activity over time.

Break It Down

  • If you are unable to perform the exercise/activity that you have chosen, break down the task into smaller, more manageable tasks.

 Experiencing Pain During Exercise:

  • It is normal and expected that you will experience pain when returning to activities and exercise when recovering from chronic pain.
  • Follow these guidelines regarding acceptable amount of pain:
    • If you are coping with the level of pain, continue with the exercise.
    • If the pain is more than you find acceptable or tolerable, or flares up longer than 24 hours after exercise, decrease the amount of exercise until you’re able to tolerate it again.
    • It is important to adjust the exercises depending on your symptoms. Try to avoid complete rest, as it is unlikely to help your chronic pain.

For More Information: