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Gentle Exercise for Fibromyalgia: Belly Dancing

Updated on December 1, 2014

by Shelia R. Wadsworth March 26, 2013

All over pain


What is fibromyalgia?

While this is not a complete overview of the condition, (and I am not a doctor!) I want to briefly describe fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a condition affecting mostly women aged 40 and older (however, younger women, children and men may also suffer from fibro). According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), approximately 5 million people in the United States are affected. The symptom most characteristic of fibro is wide-spread, chronic pain throughout the body. The pain can be described in a number of ways. For some, it is a constant dull ache, or a burning sensation, or even a "flu-like" body ache. In addition, individuals with fibromyalgia suffer from a variety of systemic disruptions. Other symptoms can include: migraine or chronic headaches, numbness and tingling of the extremities, "tender points" (specific points on the body affected by pain), cognitive difficulties (called "fibro fog"), fatigue, sleep disturbances, depression and irritability just to name a few.

It's Real

How is it diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there are not any diagnostic tests to confirm fibromyalgia. Typically, the tests performed will come back normal. In this respect, the tests rule out other possible afflictions (for example, multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis) as the cause of the symptoms leading to the diagnosis of fibromyalgia. This method of ruling out possible illnesses or diseases has led some to conclude that fibromyalgia is just a "trash can" diagnosis when they can't find anything else wrong with the patient. This is not so! While doctors and researchers are not completely sure what causes fibromyalgia, current research using brain imaging suggests that areas of the brain which process pain signals are different in fibromyalgia patients than in those without the condition, as you will see in the video. Other studies suggest that there is an elevated level of a chemical known as "substance P" in the spinal fluid of fibro patients. Your doctor will take into consideration your past medical history in conjunction with what tests reveal to come to a diagnosis.



Manage pain with exercise

Living with chronic pain can be, well...a pain! Having constant pain can be very disruptive, interfering with even the simplest of daily living tasks. Sometimes, it is all a person can do to get out of bed, get showered and get dressed. Furthermore, when we are in pain the last thing we want to do is exercise! BUT, it is one of the most effective ways to manage pain. When we exercise, the body produces chemicals called endorphins which are natural pain killers as well as other "feel good" chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. We are all familiar with the many health benefits of exercise. Not only does exercise help us relieve stress, fight pain, maintain a healthy weight, lower blood pressure (I could go on and on!) but it also helps us sleep better. As I indicated previously, sleep disturbance is a common symptom of fibro and research has detected a link between pain and quality of sleep. There are a number of low-impact exercises one can do when living with chronic pain. Walking, swimming/water aerobics, Tai Chi and yoga are all excellent choices for exercise. Before beginning any exercise program, be sure to consult your physician.

Brief history of belly dancing

A relatively unrecognized type of exercise is belly dancing. Belly dance is said to have originated as far back as pre-Aryan India and Ancient Greece, being practiced for thousands of years in numerous cultures. Belly dancing began as a way of connecting women in a communal bond, as a ritual for fertility or a ritual prior to marriage. The misconception of belly dance is that it is only for the entertainment of men, however when belly dance was performed for the rituals named previously, men were not allowed to observe (now they can even participate in dancing!).

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Belly dance for exercise

Belly dancing is a gentle form of exercise combining calming, rhythmic movements, stretching, and meditation. Belly dance helps to balance the central nervous system, massage internal organs (such as the thyroid gland, which regulates metabolism), increase flexibility, and tone and strengthen the body in a feminine way. Do not let "low-impact" fool you; it is NOT easy. What makes belly dance an excellent way to exercise is that it can be done without even leaving your home! First, there isn't any expensive equipment to buy (maybe a DVD or 2). Another benefit is that you can do it in anything you choose (you don't even need to wear shoes!). Of course, there are beautiful costumes and such but they are not necessary unless you are going to be performing or really want to "get into character". The most important thing is to be comfortable and use clothing which allows you to move freely. Lastly, you don't need an enormous amount of space to participate.I have even done some of the movements while taking a hot shower if I was too stiff and sore to do the full workout.

Belly dancing is an excellent way to achieve a healthy body, mind, and spirit. Be sure to warm up before you begin exercise in order to prevent injury. Most DVD's provide a whole body workout including warm up and cool down segments. My favorite DVD's to get started with are The Goddess Workout: Introduction to Belly Dance and Belly Dance for Fitness for Beginners: Basic Moves and Fat Burning. What I like about the Luscious DVD is that there is a segment in which she breaks down each and every movement. I purchased each of these relatively cheap from Amazon. If you are not sure about using belly dance, you may want to explore some videos online before making the commitment to purchasing videos for your library. Below you will find an actual clip from the Belly Dance for Fitness for Beginners: Basic Moves and Fat Burning. As you watch, you will be mesmerized by the beautiful music and graceful moves. Try not to compare yourself to the instructors, remember they have had many years of training. The more you do it the better you will get!

Take a test drive!

Light some scented candles and get started!

Candlelight can add to the ambiance of relaxation.
Candlelight can add to the ambiance of relaxation. | Source

Basic moves

Here I will describe a few of the basic moves and what the benefit of the movement will be. There are more than I will cover in this list.

  • Head slides: By sliding your head side to side and front to back, you are massaging the thyroid gland and firming your neck muscles.
  • Head rolls: By combining the side to side and front to back motions into a smooth circle, you will open up and reduce tension in an area which is often very tight.
  • "Snake arms": Moving your arms in alternating "wavy" motions, you are firming and toning your arms in very feminine way.
  • Undulations: These can be very tricky as they are movements in which you make a wavy pattern with your whole body. It is, however, an excellent way to massage all of your internal organs promoting blood flow and aiding digestion.
  • Shoulder rolls: Rolling your shoulders front to back and back to front, again helps loosen tension.
  • Horizontal hip circles: To do these circles, you move your hips in a motion as though you are drawing a circle on the ground. There are variations such as large hip circles where you are (obviously) making large circles, small hip circles where your movements are tighter and smaller, and Infinity circles in which you move your hips in a motion to "draw" an infinity symbol with your movements. All of these motions can smooth away tension in your lower back and massage internal organs. They also help tone the waist.
  • Vertical Hip Circles: These circles are movements in which you are drawing circles vertically with your hip on the side in which you are working. These help to tone your thighs and bottom.
  • Shimmy: These can be done using the upper body (chest and shoulders) or lower body (hips). The movement entails moving the body section in a very fast motion. It is an excellent cardiovascular activity.

Bring out your inner goddess!!

Having a chronic pain condition such as fibromyalgia often interferes with many of the things we love and want to do. One way to manage the pain is to participate in gentle, low-impact exercise. The key is to find an activity which is comfortable, fun, and will keep your interest. As you become better at belly dancing, you will feel more relaxed, sensual, and confident. When we feel better about ourselves, we feel better overall. Another plus: it could really heat things up in the bedroom! I hope that the information I have provided will inspire you to look outside of your comfort zone and take a chance to do something that will be fun while providing numerous health benefits. Most of all, have fun and enjoy a whole body, mind and spirit experience.


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    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 

      6 years ago from Sydney

      Good choice of exercise for fibromyalgia! I've been a dancer all my adult life and started belly dance in my fifties, precisely because (unlike many other dance forms) it is so gentle on the body that I hope it will keep me dancing into my seventies and eighties.

      I have to take issue with your comments about the origin of belly dance, though: while it has certainly been used as a birthing aid and as a dance among women in recent centuries, there is absolutely NO historical evidence to say that's how it originated. On the contrary, there is quite a lot of evidence going back to ancient Greek times that it was a form of entertainment. When Islam came in, women were barred from performing in public and could only dance for themselves. Male belly dancing troupes took over.

    • SRae profile imageAUTHOR

      Shelia Wadsworth 

      8 years ago from Central Pennsylvania

      Thank you so much, I really appreciate the feedback. I was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia and needed something gentle to do, so I researched and began using the DVD's I mentioned in the article. I don't do it as consistently as I would like but working on it :)

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      8 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very informative about fibromyalgia and about the appropriate exercises. Thanks especially for the basic moves. Voted Up!


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