Improve Your Activity Meter with Graded Exposure

Is pain or fatigue holding you back from the activities you want to accomplish? Our muscles and nerves have an activity meter, and when we exceed the threshold of what our nerves and muscles can tolerate, our bodies find a way to try to make us stop the activity we are trying to complete. Our brain may sound a pain alarm, or our muscles may stop firing as strongly. In order to improve the threshold of what our bodies can tolerate, we must properly train our muscles and nerves. Graded exposure can be a very effective training approach to improving the body’s activity tolerance. Graded exposure is the gradual progression of activity duration and/or activity intensity in order to become stronger.

For example, if you experience pain when trying to clean the entire house, you may want to break down the cleaning sessions into shorter bouts and incorporate rest breaks.  Continue by gradually progressing how much of the house you clean at once. This allows the muscles and nerves to reset and adapt.

Graded exposure can also be helpful during physical training. If you are training for a 10k and have never run before, your body needs a gradual progression of running intensity and duration in order to become stronger. You may want to start with walk/jog intervals for a period of time, and then gradually progress your running duration. Once the body adapts to running longer duration, you can progress your training by incorporating faster pace running intervals or hill repeats. As you gradually expose your body to increased workout intensity and duration, your muscles and nerves adapt in a healthy manner, which enables you to run stronger. You are able to do more activity before exceeding the threshold of our activity meter.

Graded exposure is a great approach to take for any activity you are struggling to accomplish.  The key to this approach is to break down the difficult activity into smaller pieces, and then gradually work into the full task you hope to complete. If you are feeling limited in one of your daily activities or workouts, ask your physical therapist about how a graded exposure approach can be helpful for you improve your body’s activity meter. Our goal is to help keep you moving in the healthiest way possible.

Dr. Katie Hall is a physical therapist at Colorado In Motion

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