Sustained Physical Exercise Improves Cognitive Performance and Fibromyalgia Symptoms, Study Shows

Sustained Physical Exercise Improves Cognitive Performance and Fibromyalgia Symptoms, Study Shows

Physical exercise over a long term improves cognitive processing and overall symptoms of fibromyalgia, new research from Sweden shows.

The study, “The role of long-term physical exercise on performance and brain activation during the Stroop colour word task in fibromyalgia patients,” was published in the journal Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging.

A substantial body of literature has shown that fibromyalgia patients present impaired pain inhibition in the central nervous system. Alterations in brain activation and connectivity are also well-known, including in areas modulating both cognition and pain.

These observations led to the theory that the cognitive complaints in chronic pain patients are caused by the dominance of pain processing over resources that are also needed for cognition — this is called the limited resource theory.

The Stroop color word test (SCWT) is widely used to evaluate the ability to process two specific stimuli simultaneously, such as reading words and identifying colors. The test enables the evaluation of changes in cognition, such as in processing speed, selective attention, and the degree of automaticity (unconscious speech comprehension and production). Impairments in all these parameters have been reported in patients with fibromyalgia using the SCWT.

Physical exercise has been shown to decrease pain sensitivity and to improve cognition in healthy subjects. In fibromyalgia patients, physical exercise reduced pain and tenderness, and improved function and well-being. Importantly, acute exercise has been shown to improve SCWT performance.

Now, scientists used the SCWT and brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to compare the effects of a 15-week physical exercise protocol in cognition and brain activation of the cerebral cortex (a critical region in the regulation of cognitive processes) in patients with fibromyalgia and healthy controls.

The results revealed that exercise improved fibromyalgia symptoms and health-related quality of life. Furthermore, the team observed an improvement of the speed of cognitive processing, especially in more demanding tasks, and increased activation of the amygdala, a brain area that regulates the response to pain, stress, and exercise, and with known structural and connectivity alterations in fibromyalgia.

“The exercise intervention yielded reduced fibromyalgia symptoms, improved cognitive processing and increased task-related activation of amygdala,” the team concluded. “Our results suggest beneficial effects of physical exercise on cognitive functioning in [fibromyalgia].”

12 comments

  1. Grace from Australia says:

    I love exercise but whatever I do (walking; Pilates; table tennis;swimming etc) I always end up with injuries after a while. I don’t give up but I wonder if the study looked into that. It seems that there is a lactic acid build up that does not go away. Muscles get tighter – pain get worse.

    • Mandy says:

      There are several nutritional supplements that I’ve added to my diet that help with muscle pain as well as energy levels and cognitive functioning. The ones I use are Magnesium with Vitamin D; B-Complex or just B-12; Omega-3 fish oils; Selenium and probiotic supplements which have dramatically reduced my gastrointestinal problems.

      • Grace from Australia says:

        I use all these and others as well. However it has not helped with the problems I get if I exercise on a regular basis. The muscles become so tight that it feels they will snap. My feet and heels are so painful it’s like walking on glass. I’ve just been looking at compression sports gear (feet and legs) and wonder if that could be useful to combat this kind of thing. Btw, despite my pain I am very active. I just have to change my exercise or sometimes stop for a while. Could not do table tennis for some months because the pain did not let up. I really don’t know what to do.

    • Kathy Teixeira says:

      I find deep water therapy, it helps to desentize your skin! Water support you muscles, tendons, and nerves so there is less chance to injury yourself. Floating especially on your back promotes relaxation as well. I hope this helps.

  2. Mandy says:

    I walk about 5km several times per week and my partner and I try to be as active as possible. My fibro isn’t as severe as some, but I still have constant pain, tense muscles, headaches, and flares that can last for a week at a time. The difference is that I only take one prescription medication (Topiramate for migraines), and I use ibuprofen, acetaminophen and muscle relaxants for pain relief when I need them. The exercise helps to relieve the tight muscles in my legs and back and I can usually think more clearly after a walk as well. The only time this doesn’t work is when I’m experiencing a flare–then the pain worsens and my stress level rises and I need to go home and rest!

  3. Gryfalcon says:

    I am assuming this is aimed at secondary fibromyalgia because it does not specify or mention children with primary juvenile fibromyalgia. It also does not mention the frequent comorbidity of Fibro with ME/CFS, which is otherwise known as Systemic EXERCISE Intolerance. Pushing a person with ME/CFS (which many Fibro patients have, particularly kids) past their exercise tolerance envelope can cause a profound worsening of the condition — to the point that they can become bedbound and further exercise is impossible. Our own experience with Fibro was that exercise was useless and dangerous until we supported and healed the body with certain nutritional supplements. AFTER the body became stronger and we had identified specific nutritional interventions to deal with adverse effects of exercise, then exercise became more possible and produced a better outcome. Trying exercise first, without this added support, was dangerous and had a very bad outcome, leading to at least one ER visit.

    Meanwhile it is well past time that the medical community came up with something more than “exercise more” to offer to Fibromyalgia patients. This is a very severe and disabling disease. We need a thorough understanding of the exact physiological processes underlying this disease, and interventions that lead to real, lasting improvement in symptoms, not just more pat, homey advice that your mother might give you. If they collected up all the money that has been used over the years for studies about exercise and fibromyalgia, we might have figured out what is causing this, and cured it by now. Enough with the exercise studies! It’s time for the medical community to do some real investigating.

    • Grace from Australia says:

      What you describe seems to happen to me Gryfalcon. As I said in my previous comment; I love to exercise but I always have adverse effects. This has been my problem in the past and it still is. Could I ask how you supported and healed the body with supplements?

    • I couldn’t agree more! It just seems like a standard answer now. I take my dog out for a walk most days, & do stretching exercises but that’s about all I can manage. The chlorine at the swimming pool brings on my asthma, I also can’t take anti inflammatory drugs because of that. I have facette joint disease in my lower back, spondylitis in my neck, osteoporosis & osteoarthritis to name but a few conditions, & to top that off obviously fibromyalgia! My body has become intolerant to a lot of drugs. And like a lot of others I don’t sleep well! How can I exercise with this lot? ? ? But I do keep on & keep smiling ( most days!) ?

  4. Pat says:

    We will wait forever for an explanation for FMA/CFS. Why let that stand in the way of getting weller with treatment options that acre shown to help ? I only started getting better when I stopped hunting for a cause and decided to sink or swim. I ditched all the quack remedies we are flogged, got off my backside and decided to cope. Now I cycle 100 miles aweek and lost 2 stone. Yes it still hurts but I feel well and can do much more. You don’t have to let this disease beat you.

  5. Vickie says:

    I am so tired of hearing “you need to exercise more”. About the only exercise I can do is biking. BUT, I work full time; have a household and family to look after and when I get home at the end of the day I can barely function. I do get exercise gardening and walking my dogs but I always get told I need to do more. That just adds to my depression and makes things worse.

  6. Janez from Slovenia says:

    Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the article. After struggling for years to remain active in spite of increased and worsen spreading pain, unbearable fatigue and increased problems with sleeping, I have been forced to reduce sports almost to zero (after more than 20 years of doing different sports-swimming, cross country skiing, cycling, running etc). Even after a medium walk, slow cycling, swimming my symptoms worsen and stop me again for weeks. I miss sport very much, it is a huge part of me. But I still believe I will do it again;).

  7. Debbie says:

    After 2 weeks in hospital having intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy for my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, my Fibromyalgia symptoms went into overdrive!! I carried on with the physio at home, until I couldn’t carry on. Almost a year later I’m practically bedbound and can hardly move around!! I was constantly doing sports when I was younger, it’s something that I really miss, especially walking through woods and forests. I cannot agree with this article.

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