The old proverb says ‘no pain, no gain’. But struggling on if you’re in pain can actually be detrimental to your health and wellbeing. 

In fact, this attitude of pushing through regardless can cause flare ups in pain or fatigue, leaving you debilitated, demotivated and possibly depressed. It might be days or weeks before you can have another go, and this time around, pain may come even earlier due to increased sensitivities in your tissues, which ultimately leads to a decrease in your overall activity levels. This is known as the boom-bust cycle. 

That’s why pacing yourself is so important, because it allows you to continue physical activity without being hampered by pain and/or fatigue. Pacing yourself means listening to your body and knowing your limits, adjusting things where needed and gradually increasing over time, so you can get back to the things you enjoy. 

Pacing isn’t only relevant to exercise either, you should also pace yourself when doing day-to-day activities such as shopping, cleaning or gardening. 

It’s important to note that when it comes to long-term conditions or ill health, recovery is not a straight line; it’s quite normal to have good and bad days. But just ensure you don’t overdo things on good days. 

Successful pacing will create a balance between your energy and activity levels, increase your confidence with exercise, maintain your motivation with activity, reduce pain and increase your endurance, both muscular and cardiovascular. 

To know what pacing means for you, you need to know how much activity you can do before a flare up occurs, which we call your baseline level. This is different for everyone and depends on you, your condition, your existing fitness and any other factors that affect your physical health. 

Let’s use an everyday example to work out our baseline. Arthur has fibromyalgia, and wants to vacuum his whole house, which takes roughly 50 minutes, but he’s never finished without having a flare up. He’s not sure, but he thinks 30 minutes would cause a flare up, thinking he might be able to manage 20 minutes. He knows for sure that he could manage 15 minutes. Therefore 15 minutes is his baseline. (You can repeat this process for every activity and measure your baseline in distance or number of repetitions you can do.) 

We won’t be able to make progress if we only ever stay at our baseline though, which is why we should aim to make small improvements over time. A gradual increase in the frequency, intensity, time, weight or distance is required for successful pacing. You could also try a gradual decrease in rest time. 

Whatever it is, just make sure you’re comfortable with the adjustment before you increase further. And you don’t need to increase things every day or even every week or month. You could increase activity by 30 seconds in six weeks, that’s still progress. Just go at your own pace. 

Here are some tips for successful pacing. 

  • Set yourself realistic targets and don’t exceed them. 
  • Start small, any movement is good, especially if you’re not normally very active. 
  • Pick things you enjoy, like gardening or walking, so you’re more likely to stick with them. 
  • Be kind to yourself. If you do have a flare up, don’t give yourself a hard time. 
  • Record achievements and celebrate successes, it will keep you motivated. 
  • Persistence is key. This isn’t about a quick fix, it’s about seeking long-term, lasting improvement.