What It Really Means to “Pace Yourself” 

Now more than ever it’s important to pace yourself – both physically and mentally. Use these strategies to avoid overtaxing yourself and worsening your arthritis symptoms.

You’ve likely heard that you need to “pace yourself ” to help manage your arthritis condition and its symptoms. With the current pandemic, setting a reasonable pace is now more important to your health than ever. But what does that mean, exactly, and how do you achieve a reasonable pace when living with arthritis?

“The general idea is to plan for a ‘just right’ amount of activity, balanced with mini rejuvenating breaks,” says Stacey Schepens Niemiec, PhD, assistant professor of research in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “The aim is threefold: preventing symptoms from limiting what you can do; reducing the need for long periods of inactivity that come after overdoing it; and, ultimately, increasing function.” 

Pacing isn’t always about avoiding doing too much. It’s also about staying out of a cycle of doing too little, stresses Anna L. Kratz, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

“Figuring out how to stay physically active is one of the cornerstones to aging well with arthritis,” says Kratz. “Pacing is one way to plan and moderate activity so the timing and intensity work for you.” 

Experimenting and Setting Expectations

Learn how much you can do on both “good” and “bad” days without flaring symptoms. Give yourself time to figure it out and don’t compare yourself with others – or with what you could do before arthritis. With a chronic condition you may never be 100% pain-free. Pacing can’t eliminate pain, but can help you stop before pain gets out of control. 


“You have to recognize patterns to address them,” says Niemiec. “Try keeping a diary to track your activities and subsequent arthritis symptoms for a couple weeks.” It’s not just physical activities like yardwork or exercise that can flare symptoms, says Kratz. “Oftentimes, things like dealing with the stress of a toxic person or a long call with a credit card company that lead to the most exhaustion and pain,” she says. 


Make space for the activities most important to you and let go of less meaningful ones. “When you have arthritis, you need to prioritize your health in a new way,” says Kratz. “This can be hard because it can get at the core of how you see yourself – someone who keeps a spotless house or is always on the go, for example.” 


Making a plan – rather than reacting to symptoms – is the foundation of pacing, says Douglas Cane, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in pain management at the Nova Scotia Health Authority in Canada. Think about how a given activity will affect you, and make a plan that’s likely to get you through it without causing a flare. Planning may include choosing your “best” time of day to tackle a stressful task or making sure you get good sleep and nutrition in the days before an important event. 

Consistency and Repetition

Things aren’t going to be a lot better tomorrow just because you paced well today, says Cane. “Doing it consistently for months – not days or weeks – may allow people to gradually increase their overall functioning.” Niemiec stresses that activity pacing takes practice, motivation and perseverance. “It’s OK to experience setbacks. In fact, they are inevitable,” she says. “The trick is to pick yourself up and try again.” 

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