Pacing your activities

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runner checking pulse

​​You may not feel confident in your ability to take part in regular activity. Your pain may increase when you do certain activities or you may feel that you never have enough energy. The key to doing regular activities is pacing.

Pacing means that you don't overdo activity but instead find a comfortable amount of time to move around without increasing your pain. You might need to experiment to find the right activity level. You can also ask your healthcare team for help if you are struggling to develop an activity plan.

Read on to find out some specific ways to pace your activities.

Avoid activity cycling

A lot of the time, people do more activity when they feel less pain. However, if they end up doing too much, it can make their pain feel worse. When they feel lots of pain, they do less activity, which can also make pain feel worse. We use activity cycling to describe this type of “all or nothing” approach.

You can avoid activity cycling by engaging in gradual activity and setting SMART goals. This approach can also help you make sure that you do not overdo it even when you’re feeling less pain.

A good rule of thumb is that your pain can go up by 2 points from baseline during activity but must return to baseline within one hour. If it takes longer to return to the baseline, you’re doing too much activity and may need to ease off.

Everyone is different, however. For some people it may be okay to have increased pain for longer, while others need to adjust their activity plans if pain lasts after the activity ends. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out what you should expect.

Activity pacing

Most people use some type of pacing during the day. You may try to do an activity until you feel pain and then rest for a long time, or do everything you have to do in the morning so that you can rest all afternoon. This type of pacing is not very effective or helpful and can make you feel frustrated.

Time management is the key to good pacing. Here's an example of how to use time to pace an activity effectively.

Let's say that Stefanie knows that she can clean her dorm for 20 minutes before her pain worsens. She can set the activity of cleaning her dorm for 10 minutes at a time. This is less time than she is confident she can spend without a break. So Stefanie could clean for 10 minutes, rest for 10 minutes and then clean for another 10 minutes. What’s important here is that Stefanie would stop and rest after 10 minutes even if she's not finished cleaning or feels like she could do more. This is how to use time to pace an activity.

To pace a chosen activity, first determine your baseline. Then, estimate how long you need to rest after a short period of activity. Once you have estimated your baseline and rest periods, you can alternate them, for example activity time – rest time – second activity time.

While you are resting, you might choose to do brief relaxation exercises​ such as deep breathing or imagery. Try some of these relaxation exercises in the iCanCope app. Another type of rest that might work is to doing a different type of activity, such as reading a section of a book.

Golden rules of pacing

  • Understand that it takes time to learn how to pace properly – don’t expect immediate success.
  • Keep practising – try using a timer to know when to stop.
  • Take a break before your pain or tiredness gets bad.
  • Don’t compete with anyone else.
  • Look at your goals regularly – are they SMART?
  • Plan your daily activities carefully – don’t squash everything into one day.
  • Use time instead of pain or tiredness as your guide so you are in control, not the pain.
Last updated: May 2nd 2016