Aerobic exercise training for adults with fibromyalgia

Exercise training is commonly recommended for individuals with fibromyalgia. This review is one of a series of reviews about exercise training for people with fibromyalgia that will replace the “Exercise for treating fibromyalgia syndrome” review first published in 2002.

The objectives of this review were to:

  • To evaluate the benefits and harms of aerobic exercise training for adults with fibromyalgia
  • To assess the following specific comparisons
  • assess aerobic versus control conditions (eg, treatment as usual, wait list control, physical activity as usual)
  • assess aerobic versus aerobic interventions (eg, running vs brisk walking)
  • assess aerobic versus non-exercise interventions (eg, medications, education)

The authors searched the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, Embase, the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), the Physiotherapy Evidence Database (PEDro), Thesis and Dissertation Abstracts, the Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED), the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP), and the registry up to June 2016, unrestricted by language, and we reviewed the reference lists of retrieved trials to identify potentially relevant trials.

Eight trials (with 456 participants) provided low-quality evidence for pain intensity, fatigue, stiffness, and physical function; and moderate-quality evidence for withdrawals and HRQL at completion of the intervention (6 to 24 weeks). With the exception of withdrawals and adverse events, major outcome measures were self-reported and were expressed on a 0 to 100 scale (lower values are best, negative mean differences (MDs)/standardized mean differences (SMDs) indicate improvement). Effects for aerobic exercise versus control were as follows: HRQL: mean 56.08; five studies; N = 372; MD -7.89, 95% CI -13.23 to -2.55; absolute improvement of 8% (3% to 13%) and relative improvement of 15% (5% to 24%); pain intensity: mean 65.31; six studies; N = 351; MD -11.06, 95% CI -18.34 to -3.77; absolute improvement of 11% (95% CI 4% to 18%) and relative improvement of 18% (7% to 30%); stiffness: mean 69; one study; N = 143; MD -7.96, 95% CI -14.95 to -0.97; absolute difference in improvement of 8% (1% to 15%) and relative change in improvement of 11.4% (21.4% to 1.4%); physical function: mean 38.32; three studies; N = 246; MD -10.16, 95% CI -15.39 to -4.94; absolute change in improvement of 10% (15% to 5%) and relative change in improvement of 21.9% (33% to 11%); and fatigue: mean 68; three studies; N = 286; MD -6.48, 95% CI -14.33 to 1.38; absolute change in improvement of 6% (12% improvement to 0.3% worse) and relative change in improvement of 8% (16% improvement to 0.4% worse). Pooled analysis resulted in a risk ratio (RR) of moderate quality for withdrawals (17 per 100 and 20 per 100 in control and intervention groups, respectively; eight studies; N = 456; RR 1.25, 95%CI 0.89 to 1.77; absolute change of 5% more withdrawals with exercise (3% fewer to 12% more).

Three trials provided low-quality evidence on long-term effects (24 to 208 weeks post intervention) and reported that benefits for pain and function persisted but did not for HRQL or fatigue. Withdrawals were similar, and investigators did not assess stiffness and adverse events.

When compared with control, moderate-quality evidence indicates that aerobic exercise probably improves HRQL and all-cause withdrawal, and low-quality evidence suggests that aerobic exercise may slightly decrease pain intensity, may slightly improve physical function, and may lead to little difference in fatigue and stiffness. Three of the reported outcomes reached clinical significance (HRQL, physical function, and pain). Long-term effects of aerobic exercise may include little or no difference in pain, physical function, and all-cause withdrawal, and the authors are uncertain about long-term effects on remaining outcomes. They downgraded the evidence owing to the small number of included trials and participants across trials, and because of issues related to unclear and high risks of bias (performance, selection, and detection biases). Aerobic exercise appears to be well tolerated (similar withdrawal rates across groups), although evidence on adverse events is scarce, so they are uncertain about its safety.