Your ‘Movement Sweet Spot’: The Trick to Finding and Using It

Think of a time when you tried something new — say, skiing for the first time as an adult, eating oysters, or doing a TikTok video with your kids. Were you nervous? Did you ease into it because you weren’t sure how it would turn out?

This is what happens to a lot of people when they start moving more — or increase the intensity of their movement — when they’re coping with chronic pain. You don’t want to overdo it and cause more pain, so you take it easy. Maybe you feel worried the whole time, or are on high alert for signs of pain or discomfort afterward.

This is understandable. But remember that movement is one of the most important tools you have to reduce pain and build resilience.

The key is to find the right type and amount of movement and exercise that challenges your body and pain system, and also strengthens your muscles and reduces your pain. We like to call this your movement sweet spot. Or in the words of Goldilocks: not too much, not too little. Just right.

How Much is Too Much?

If movement or exercise causes an uptick in your pain, it does not automatically mean that the movement is bad for you. Often, you can adapt to a new form of exercise and your pain will subside after a little time. Other times you may have to scale it back to find your sweet spot.

On the other hand, too little activity means that you’re not challenging your body enough to retrain your pain system and effectively reduce your persistent pain.

You might be thinking, “Sounds good. But how do I actually find my sweet spot?”

The following guidance from our team of expert physical therapists at Hinge Health will help you determine when you can nudge forward and when you may need to scale back on your movement so you can find your just-right movement plan.

  • Some pain is fine. If activity or exercise causes pain or discomfort it doesn’t mean you’re delaying healing or re-injuring yourself. But pain should not exceed an acceptable level for you. If the discomfort interferes with your sleep or ability to do daily activities, you might be doing too much. Try reducing the intensity or duration of your activity.

  • Monitor your body’s response to activity over a 24-hour period. It’s normal to experience a little increase in pain after doing an activity. As long as your pain returns to baseline level within 24 hours, you can continue with moving more.

  • If your pain becomes unacceptable or stays increased for longer than 24 hours, scale back. You want to keep moving, but limit how much you do until your pain becomes manageable again for 24 hours. Then you can try to slowly increase your activity level from there.

  • Movement is medicine. There’s no denying that it’s hard to move when you’re in pain. But even on hard days, try not to avoid movement altogether. Short periods of gentle, consistent movement can help alleviate an uptick in pain.

Not Convinced?

Moving through pain can be scary — not to mention uncomfortable. How do you really know that pain isn’t a warning sign that you’re doing too much and causing damage to your body?

Our physical therapists like to think in terms of the pain buffer zone.

Take a look at the diagram below. Your pain trigger line is when you first feel pain. The actual injury line is when damage would occur. Your body offers a protective buffer to separate the two. This provides a safety cushion between hurt and harm, so pain acts as a warning signal. Nudging into a bit of pain is almost always safe. The pain buffer zone makes re-injury less likely even if pain flares occur along the way.

As you navigate your pain management journey, there may be times when you overdo it and have to temporarily scale back on your movement. Other times, you’ll realize your body can handle more than you thought. Your movement sweet spot is constantly shifting so it can take a little trial and error to find your Goldilocks point. Just remember that even with persistent pain, you are most likely safe to move. With time and slight shifts in your movement plan, you should be able to do more with less pain.