The 4 Best Exercise Classes for Chronic Pain

Exercise classes provide an energetic and community-driven approach to fitness. They can be a whole lot of fun, but can also be very intimidating, especially for those living with chronic pain. How can you be sure that your joints will tolerate the class you are taking? Which type of class will be best to help in reducing the pain I already have?   

Pick a class that is best suited for your needs

Below are my four favorite types of exercise classes and what type of pain they may be best suited for. Remember that with any exercise class has the potential to cause harm when not approached in the right way. Be sure to consult with your physician or physical therapist before starting any new exercise regime. Also, finding skilled and compassionate class instructors will be key in ensuring your success.

The exercises classes listed below are generally considered low impact, meaning they will not involve jumping, pounding or other movements that may cause excess stress on your joints. This is very important when shopping for an exercise when living with chronic joint pain.

Remember why you are exercising in the first place – hopefully things like “to improve my mood”, “reduce my pain” or “be healthier” come to mind. Check your competitive nature at the door, because when living with chronic pain you especially need to pay attention and respect your body’s limits.

1. Pilates

Why Pilates?

Pilates is focused around one main goal: to strengthen your core. It utilizes precise, controlled movements. This is ideal for those with chronic pain as this attention to form can decrease your risk of injury.

What diagnoses or conditions could be well suited for a Pilates class?

I frequently recommend Pilates to my clients with primary complaints of low back, pelvic or hip pain. This class may also be useful for those who experience dizziness with frequent positional changes, such as POTS or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The majority of the class will be spent lying on your mat in varying positions.

What is a reformer? Should I take a Pilates reformer class?

This is that machine you see people laying on when you peep another class at the Pilates studio. You lay on your back and pull on handles that have resistance that can be distributed through your arms or legs.  This means that you will be doing many of the same movements that you do in a traditional Pilates class with also with added resistance.

The set-up of the reformer also helps you to stretch and gain more kinesthetic (movement of body) awareness, which means knowledge of where your body parts are as they move through space. Essentially, both a traditional and reformer Pilates class with help you strengthen your core. The reformer will help you further lengthen your muscles and make you more in-tune with the movements of your body.

2. Yoga

Why Yoga?

Ah yoga, possibly my one true and undying love. Yoga helps with so many things and that is the beauty in it. Here are just a few examples:

  • Lengthen Muscles
  • Strengthen Muscles
  • Improve Balance
  • Relaxation
  • Mindfulness

What diagnoses or conditions could be well suited for a Yoga class?

I typically recommend yoga most to my patients who have widespread muscle-related pain.  There are yoga exercises to help with everything truly though and if you are able to afford a private lesson or work with a physical therapist who is also certified in yoga therapy you can reap amazing benefits for your specific condition.

How do I choose what type of Yoga class to take?

Once you choose a studio your next challenge will be to select a particular class. Here are my favorites for those with chronic pain:

  • -Yin yoga
  • -Restorative yoga
  • -Vinyasa/Flow (keep in mind this will be faster paced, so may not be the best for beginners)

3. Spin

Why Spin?

My first instinct is to tell you that the main thing spin class helps with is making you sweat buckets. If sweating gives you workout satisfaction than this is the class for you. Spin is a great cardio workout.

What diagnoses or conditions could be well suited for a spin class?

Cycling in general is also great for hip and quadriceps strengthening. With this being said, Spin is an excellent workout for those with chronic hip or knee pain. It can be helpful for those with low back pain as your pelvis is supported on a seat unlike running/the elliptical.

Don’t be afraid to keep the resistance low and skip some of the “jumps” off the saddle if this is too much pressure on the knees though! Also, this workout may not be the best if you have pelvic pain due to the pressure form the saddle. If you have neck or shoulder pain, make sure your bike is set up properly and that you sit upright if your neck gets too sore keeping your hands on the handlebars.

Otherwise, enjoy the energy in the room, the sick beats and the sweat.

4. Barre

Why Barre?

When I first read about Barre I figured it might be kind of…easy. I was wrong. The majority of exercises are just utilizing your body weight without the frills of bulky equipment and props. You will be primarily standing and completing cycles of exercises that will definitely challenge your balance. This is a great full body, low impact workout.

What diagnoses or conditions could be well suited for a Barre class?

Barre is great for anyone who wants to improve back/core or hip strength. It is similar to Pilates in its benefits but will involve more exercises in standing rather than lying on a mat.

What it really comes down to: find a class that makes you love to move.

If I could go to a class everyday I would, but unfortunately for most of us this is not a financially feasible plan. I will encourage you to try to budget for at least one exercise class a week. There really is no substitute for the energy in the studio, the cues from a skilled instructor and the camaraderie of exercising as a group. Also, it will help you to stick to a routine and give you something to look forward to each week.

There are also many more affordable or free options online, including specific classes based on your area of pain. While you don’t quite get the same energy as being in studio, online companies are beginning to embrace more “live” class models and a broader sense of community within their brand.

Respect your body and listen to its wisdom

Remember to always exercise within your own limits and listen to your body. Be kind and compassionate to yourself during any workout. You are the only person that knows what you are feeling—no one else in the room has a say on what you do or do not participate in.

Take ownership of your workout and respect your limitations. Feed off the positive energy that an exercise class provides—enjoy the invigorating power of the group, without getting lost in your own competitive nature.

Make sure to take classes that “meet you where you’re at” meaning they are the right skill level and intensity (or could be adjusted to your level allowing for modifications as you feel are needed).

Enjoyment leads to consistency, consistency leads to results

With regular and effective participation in an exercise class you will make progress. It may not be fast, it may not be easy, but you WILL begin to notice positive changes in your mind, body and spirit (as long as you are gradually progressing and not working outside your body’s limits).

While consistency is important, variety can also help to keep you on track. Muscle soreness is normal after any rigorous workout, but changing the type of class you take can mix it up and utilize other muscles, giving those tired ones a break.

Final tips

  • Wear form fitting, but comfortable work out clothes, so you’re not making adjustments the whole time
  • Bring water! And drink lots of it.
  • Bringing a towel is also a good idea, as you never know how sweaty things are going to get.

And ultimately, when in doubt, find a doga class. I mean yoga + puppies? What could be better?

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