Exercise: The Antidote to Shingles Pain?


A shingles outbreak can quickly become an extraordinarily painful condition for many people. It’s caused by the virus varicella-zoster (the same virus that leads to chickenpox) and often lays dormant for years before emerging as a rash or blisters on the skin. For some, it causes only some mild irritation or itching, but for others, even a gentle touch can feel extremely uncomfortable.

An increased prevalence of shingles occurs starting at the age of 50 and increases with advanced age due to our immune systems becoming weaker, leaving us more susceptible to the dormant virus. Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system, opening the door to illness and outbreaks. But can exercise impact the severity and frequency of shingles outbreaks?

The Exercise Effect on Shingles

Any form of exercise that can help to reduce stress can also help stave off a shingles outbreak. Walking, swimming, cycling or other aerobic activities, done for at least 30 minutes, three to five days a week, can go a long way toward minimizing stress and keeping your immune system going strong.

The Power of Tai Chi

One type of exercise has been proven to have a definitive impact on minimizing — and possibly even preventing — shingles outbreaks. Research shows that older people who practice tai chi, the centuries-old martial art practice from China, may be better able to fight off the varicella-zoster virus or develop milder symptoms of shingles if they do get the disease.

One study from the National Institutes of Health observed 112 volunteers, ages 59 to 86. Half of the group was given 40-minute tai chi lessons three times a week for 16 weeks. The other half was given health-counseling classes. At the end of the study, the tai-chi group had a noticeable improvement in their immunity to varicella-zoster; when they were later vaccinated against the virus, they also had a better response to the vaccine. Over the course of 25 weeks, the tai chi group’s rate of increase in immunity was double that of the health education group.

Most tai chi programs like the one studied above combine elements of aerobics, relaxation and balance. Want to get a feel for it yourself? These three beginner-friendly moves can help get you started.

Three Tai Chi Basics:

Pushing Hands

Step 1: Step out with left foot so both feet are about shoulder-distance apart. Bring hands in front of body at about chest level, palms down, wrists relaxed.

Step 2: Bend knees slightly while bringing hands toward shoulders, inhaling through nose.

Step 3: In one fluid motion, push down with hands toward floor, then bring them forward exhaling through nose as you straighten arms. Repeat the movement, continuing with this fluid motion for about eight reps.

Horse Stance

Step 1: Step feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart.

Step 2: Bend knees about 45 degrees, keeping back straight, and bring hands forward to shoulder height, palms down and wrists relaxed.

Step 3: Hold here for about 30 seconds, working up to one minute.

Stretch for Longevity

Step 1: Stand with feet about hip distance apart, left heel down with toes lifted, right hand on hip.

Step 2: Bring left hand above head, then bend over and reach down as far as you can with left hand; if possible, try to touch your toes.

Step 3: Stand back up, raising arm back above head and reach back as far as you can. Repeat, bending forward and lifting up for about eight reps per side.

If tai chi isn’t for you, aim to bring exercise of some form into your days to reduce stress and stave off symptoms. Sometimes a morning or evening walk is the best way to start or end a stress-filled day.

If you have shingles, what do you find helps you deal with your pain? Let us know in the comments below!

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