Adopting this mindset will help you stay active well into old age

Growing old is unavoidable. Consequently, as our seemingly endless numbered days eventually turn to years and decades, everyone’s body starts to hurt just a little bit more. These aches and pains can make staying active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle feel impossible for many older adults. Ironically, though, an active lifestyle usually does wonders in terms of pain management.

So, how can older adults (or anyone with nagging aches or injuries for that matter) break this self-defeating cycle of pain leading to less exercise which results in further bodily deterioration? 

A new study from Penn State has a suggestion for everyone out there who feels like their body just hurts too much to get up off the couch. Simply put, don’t dwell on the pain, and don’t convince yourself that your body is now useless. The research team at PSU says that how an individual thinks about their chronic pain often plays just as much into exercise habits as the actual pain itself.

A group of 143 adults diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis was tracked for this research. The study’s authors found that participants who reported frequently “catastrophizing” (feeling an exaggerated sense of helplessness, hopelessness) over their condition were far less likely to get up and get moving later on that same day. 

Of course, this cycle of behavior only leads to more laziness, which in turn produces more “woe is me” feelings in reference to one’s body, and in many scenarios, worse pain. Conversely, the more a person stays active, the better they’ll feel about their body in general, and chances are all that exercise will also help mitigate some of those painful sensations.

All in all, the study’s authors believe their work on this project is quite significant. Formulating ways to prevent and combat pain catastrophizing thoughts and tendencies may prove incredibly useful for future pain management strategies.

“Reducing daily pain catastrophizing may help older patients to be more active and less sedentary on a daily basis,” says Ruixue Zhaoyang, an assistant research professor at PSU. “This could help improve their chronic pain condition, physical function, and overall health, and reduce the possibility of hospitalization, institutionalization, and healthcare costs in the long term.”

Throughout the study period, each participating adult kept a daily diary and wore an accelerometer (a device that tracks movements/physical activities) for 22 days. Each morning participants would describe how they were feeling about their pain that day, and then the accelerometers kept note of their subsequent daily movements.

Upon analyzing all of that collected data, the research team recognized a pattern. If an adult was feeling particularly hopeless and defeated by their pain on a specific morning, they were less active and more sedentary for the rest of the day. Moreover, this frequently extended to the next day as well. Inactivity on one day usually led to more pain catastrophizing and laziness the following day.

“One particularly interesting finding is that the detrimental influence of catastrophizing thinking about pain is independent of the pain experience itself,” professor Zhaoyang adds. “In other words, how patients think about their pain, rather than the level of experienced pain, had a more powerful impact on their daily physical activity.”

What are some examples of pain catastrophizing diary entries? “The pain is terrible and is never going to get any better” or “I can’t stand the pain anymore.” 

“Staying physically active is one of the most important self-management strategies for chronic pain patients,” comments Lynn Martire, professor of human development and family studies at PSU. “However, many chronic pain patients avoid physical activities that they are actually capable of doing. Our study focused on one critical psychological factor that may explain why patients avoid physical activity despite its importance for pain management: their catastrophic thinking about their pain.”

This study focused on knee osteoarthritis, but the team at PSU says there’s no reason these findings can’t be applied to all kinds of chronic pain. 

It’s also important to note here that there are, of course, limitations to these findings. Pushing through pain to the point of causing further damage is never a good idea. Listen to your body, and by all means, take a break if you feel like you need one. The main message here is not to ruminate on aches or chronic pains and allow them to define your life.

The full study can be found here, published in Pain.