Soothe Chronic Pain With 4 Easy Warm Weather Workouts

If you suffer from chronic pain, exercising may seem impossible. But experts say being activeóregardless of whatís causing the painócan help you feel better. Need more motivation?

How about summer weather and extra daylight? Staying lighter longer means more time for outdoor exercise and warmer temperatures, which can help your joints. (Cold weather causes muscles, ligaments, and tendons to tighten up, and stiffness makes it easier to get hurt.)

"Many people worry that exertion from exercise will increase their pain and fatigue, but if done properly it should have the opposite effect," explains veteran physical therapist Justin Solotoff, MSPT, of Fairfield Physical Therapy, in Fairfield, NJ. "Inactivity is actually the bigger problem as it can worsen many symptoms and lead to other conditions such as obesity, which can further deteriorate health."

But summer is also a time to be cautious," Solotoff warns. "Exercising outdoors has variables not found in controlled indoor environments. At the gym you donít have to look out for uneven pavement, divots [small holes] in the grass, high heat and humidity, and other outdoor hazards."

Tips for Outdoor Exercise Safety

Solotoff gives the following advice for safe summer exercise:

1. Wear the Right Shoes
One of the biggest contributors to injury is improper footwear. "Try to avoid flip-flops," he says. "They offer no support and can easily catch on the lip of steps or trip you up on uneven pavement." In fact, the popular summer sandals contribute to many of the injuries he treats in his New Jersey practice.

Good quality sneakers are best for exercise because they have arch support and cushioning to protect joints. If additional support is needed, Solotoff recommends over-the counter arch support in the form of sneaker inserts. If you just canít live without flip flips, look into products designed to be supportive, like Fit Flops or sandals with Orthaheel technology.

2. Donít Skip Your Warm Up
"Believe it or not, itís possible to injure yourself walking or doing water aerobics if you donít stretch your muscles first," says Solotoff, who advises simple stretches for the calf and hamstring muscles along with marching in place for a minute or two before engaging in any activity.

In fact, stretching has nearly immediate benefits and can improve mobility in less than two weeks if done consistently. "Stretching and warming the muscles lubricates and prepares them for the task ahead," Solotoff points out. "Itís like allowing a car to warm up before you drive it in the winter. You wouldnít expect it to perform properly without letting the engine rev a little first."

But be sure to stretch correctly: "The proper way to stretch is to engage the muscle until you feel slight resistance. Hold that position for up to 30 seconds. Never bounce into a stretch since jerking into position causes injury." Be sure to keep joints loose and not fully extended or locked. And "If you feel a sharp or stabbing pain, youíre pushing it too far."

3. Pace Yourself
Another common pitfall is overdoing it after a period of inactivity. "Resist the urge to go gung ho," Solotoff says. "Playing multiple sets of tennis or back-to-back softball games can cause muscles to spasm and leads to repetitive overuse injury. Too much sudden activity can be discouraging and set you back. Start slowly and add intensity as you get stronger over time."

4. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
"If you arenít fully hydrated your muscles will cramp more easily. So be sure to drink plenty of water," Solotoff says.

Best Exercises for Pain

Now that youíre warmed up, hydrated, and wearing proper footwear, youíre for the pain-reducing benefits of regular exercise. Here are some of Solotoffís favorite ways to build strength and flexibility and improve balance safely outdoors without the need for equipment:

Walking
This exercise has numerous benefits, is accessible to practically everyone, and is a great way to maintain a healthy weight. In addition, "Walking eases stress on joints by strengthening the muscles around them and reduces pain from inflammation," he explains.

Begin with a short daily walk around your block or neighborhood and gradually increase the distance and quicken your pace. You might add a second walk to your day after dinner or increase a 10-minute walk to a 13-minute walk. When that starts to feel easier, go a little further. To avoid holes and bumps in sidewalks, consider using a schoolís track.

Balance and Strength Training
Take advantage of opportunities to improve balance and strengthen legs and ankles during your walk. Experts say itís important to work on balance as we age: Good balance helps prevent fallsóone of the most common ways seniors in particular get hurt. As Solotoff explains, "Weak ankles roll more easily. Having strong ankles and the ability to respond properly from a neurological stand point can also be compromised as we get older." Known as ankle strategy in physical therapy speak, itís what enables the brain to anticipate and correctly position the body to avoid injury.

One good idea: "If you come across a bench, for instance, practice sitting and standing without using your hands. Repeat 10 times. For better balance, stand sideways behind the bench and lift one foot while holding on to the bench with one hand," says Solotoff.

Yoga or Tai Chi
Many benefits can be found in the age-old practices of yoga and tai chi. Both use your bodyís weight to build strength, which is necessary to perform everyday tasks like rising easily from a chair, climbing stairs, and carrying groceries.

Known for its gentle movements, tai chi puts joints through their full range of motion without resistance. Many senior centers and community colleges offer tai chi classes, or you can start at home with a DVD. Ask your physician, physical therapist, or trainer at the gym for suggestions.

Yoga combines breathing, relaxation, and meditation techniques to reduce the bodyís tension in response to pain. During the summer, yoga classes are often held outdoors. "If performed correctly, yogaís fluid movements can reduce inflammation, increase mobility, and strengthen muscles without causing excessive wear and tear," says Solotoff. He adds that itís important to work with a certified trainer who has experience dealing with chronic pain issues. "Many people are surprised to learn that incorrect yoga positioning can be harmful."

If you are new to yoga, visit a yoga studio for more information or check out beginner yoga programs online or on television.

Swimming
If you have access to an outdoor swimming pool, use it to relieve joint soreness. "Movement is easier in water, offers muscle-strengthening resistance, and can provide a completely pain-free way to exercise," Solotoff notes. Start by pool walking [walking in water shallow enough that your feet touch the poolís floor] in all directions. "Forward, backward and sideways across the pool is ideal," he adds.

Next, try propping your arms on a flotation noodle and "bicycle" around the pool (move your legs as if youíre riding a bike; you can use your arms to help you move, or wrap a noodle under your arms and cycle your legs for a similar effect), or step up and down the pool stairs a few times. "You can also strengthen your muscles and core by practicing sitting in an imaginary chair," he says. Another good way to strengthen your legs? Hold on to the side of the pool with both hands and kick your legs behind you.

Start Smart

Solotoff recommends consulting your doctor before beginning any exercise routine, especially if youíve had surgery or a pre-existing cardiac or pulmonary condition. Still, "The good news is physical therapists can help you develop exercise routines tailored to almost any physical limitation," he says.

Finally, if you experience pain, dizziness or any breathing difficulties during exercise speak with a health care professional before continuing. Treat post-workout pain by applying ice to joints.

Justin Solotoff, MSPT, approved this article.

Sources

Justin Sotoloff, MSPT. Interview on June 11 and June 23, 2015.

"Weather and Arthritis Pain." The Arthritis Foundation. Page accessed June 25, 2015.

"Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging." National Institute on Aging. Updated January 22, 2015.

"Exercises to Help Prevent Falls." National Institutes of Health. Updated June 30, 2014.

"Pain Management with Yoga." American Yoga Association. Accessed June 20, 2015.