Cycling Away from Chronic Pain

In pain? No problem! A moderate to vigorous workout could help you feel better

Cycling class
Christopher Futcher/Getty Images

Bear with me on this because what may appear to be TMI will make sense soon enough: I am prone to migraines and sinus problems, an unfortunate double-whammy, since I live in the Washington, D.C., area, which has frequent changes in barometric pressure (a common trigger for migraine episodes). In recent years, I have found that when I have slight headache twinges in the morning, I often feel a whole lot better after an indoor cycling class, without having to take pain-relieving medication.

I figured this was just a personal quirk—albeit a good one!—until I came across some scientific studies suggesting that indoor cycling really can help migraine sufferers and others who suffer from various forms of chronic pain.

On the headache front, a 2009 study from the Cephalea Headache Centre in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that when people with migraine performed an exercise program based on indoor cycling three times per week, their aerobic fitness levels increased and their migraine status (including the frequency of migraine attacks, symptom intensity, and their use of medicine) improved significantly. In 2011, the same researchers found that exercising for 40 minutes three times per week led to a greater decrease in migraine attacks than taking a preventive anticonvulsant drug did, after three months. This may be because cardiovascular exercise “can activate multiple pain modulatory mechanisms, if not the underlying mechanisms that initiate the attack,” according to a 2013 paper in the journal Migraine.

But it also could be because aerobic exercise like indoor cycling triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

The truth is, the pain-relieving effects of indoor cycling aren’t exclusive to migraines. This form of exercise also can relieve pain and improve movement among people with osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee.

In fact, a 2012 study from Northern Illinois University found that when people with knee OA did stationary cycling workouts for 12 weeks, their walking pace improved significantly and their scores on various pain measures dropped considerably.

Meanwhile, indoor cycling can ease other forms of pain between the groin and the chin. A 2013 study from the University of Western Sydney in Australia found that after people with chronic non-specific low back pain did eight weeks of cycling workouts on a stationary bicycle, their pain decreased significantly (though not quite as much as a comparable group who did Pilates trunk exercises); by the six-month mark, however, people in both groups had gained similar improvements.

What’s more, a 2010 study from Denmark found that when people with work-related neck and shoulder muscle pain performed 20 minutes of moderate intensity cycling in an upright position with relaxed shoulders, they gained greater oxygenation of the neck and shoulder muscles; this is significant because it may explain why cycling with your shoulders relaxed (which you should be doing anyway, as part of proper indoor cycling form) results in decreased neck and shoulder muscle pain.

The bottom line: If you suffer from some form of chronic pain, it’s worth giving indoor cycling a try—either in a group class or as a solo workout—assuming, of course, that you have the green light from your doctor. But it’s important to remember that every body is different: So while moderate to vigorous exercise, such as indoor cycling, may have a pain-relieving effect for some people, it could conceivably exacerbate pain flare-ups for others. That’s why it’s important to test the waters carefully. As you ride, make an effort to calm your mind and listen to your body, and pace yourself during the workout; breathe smoothly and stay sufficiently hydrated, too. Trust the way you feel while you’re cycling because you are the best gauge of whether your workout is relieving or aggravating your pain.

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