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No one said getting older was fun, but does it have to be painful, too? Many older adults suffer from chronic pain, especially in the shoulders, lower back and knees. And this often leads to reduced mobility, which decreases our strength and mobility even further. This cycle of pain, disuse and inactivity is not only bad for our bodies, but it can have negative psychological effects as well.

So, how can you break the cycle?

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing focused on the role of exercise in relieving pain and increasing mobility among seniors with chronic pain, especially those living in nursing homes.[1]

The researchers invited individuals living in an assisted-living facility to join an eight-week physical exercise program. The program consisted of one-hour sessions each week conducted by a physiotherapist and nurses, and included exercises such as stretching, strengthening, balancing, towel dancing and self-administered massage to various acupressure points. They seniors were also encouraged to practice the exercises on their own between sessions.

Before the start of the program, the 75 participants (aged 60–90) were assessed on measures including pain intensity, range of movement, activities of daily living and mobility. Seventy-three percent (n = 55) reported pain in the previous three months and were referred to as the pain group, while 25% (n = 20) were the no pain group.

After the eight-week program was completed, results showed a significant decrease in pain intensity and a significant increase in range of movement in the neck, shoulder, back, hip and knee. Mobility levels were also significantly increased even though activities of daily living remained unchanged.

So, while people often associate exercise with discomfort and pain, especially as they age, this study showed that it can actually have the opposite effect, helping to decrease pain and increase mobility among older individuals. However, it is important to pick the right type and intensity level of exercise for your current physical condition. So if you suffer from chronic pain and have been inactive for a period of time, it would be prudent to consult your doctor before you begin a program.

A Fun Way to Break the Cycle

For seniors who find themselves stuck in a cycle of pain and inactivity (or for anyone who is looking for a fun, low-impact workout), consider tai chi.

Tai chi is a form of martial arts that involves a series of slow, graceful movements repeated in patterns. It improves balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular and respiratory function, and has even been shown to relieve arthritis.

In addition, tai chi’s focus on deep breathing, meditation and clearing one’s mind has been shown to improve mood and alleviate depression and anxiety. So it could also help to offset some of the negative psychological effects associated with chronic pain. But, as we said, to avoid injury be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program.