One-session instruction in pacing doesn’t work

If there’s one form of coping strategy that occupational therapists love, it has to be the idea of “pacing”. Of course, the concept of pacing is vexed: we don’t have a good definition that’s widely accepted so it’s difficult to know whether we’re doin’ it right, but the idea of chunking down the amount of activity carried out at any one time is widely used as one way for people to sustain activity involvement despite pain and fatigue.

Today I’m looking at an old paper (from 2016) where people with osteoarthritis (hip or knee) were given instruction in time-based activity pacing by an occupational therapist. Surprisingly, this was a three-arm randomised controlled study, where 193 people were randomised into tailored activity pacing, general activity pacing, or usual care. I say surprisingly because RCT’s are fairly rare in occupational therapy research in persistent pain, and nigh on impossible to get funding for (sigh).

The definition of pacing used in this study was “the regulation of activity level and/or rate in the service of an adaptive goal or goals” (Nielson, Jensen, Karsdorp & Vlaeyen, 2013) although the form of pacing offered by clinicians working in this field is still unclear. In this study, the “tailored” group underwent seven days of monitoring using an accelerometer, the results were downloaded, analysed and an individualised pacing plan developed by the therapists. The plan was intended to highlight times when the person had high or low levels of activity (as compared with their own average, and averages drawn from previous studies of people with the same diagnosis), and to point out associations between these activity levels and self reported symptoms. Participants were then provided with ideas for changing their activity levels to optimise their ability to sustain activity and minimise symptom fluctuation.

In the “general” pacing group, participants were given the same sorts of instructions, but instead of using objective data from their own activities, they were asked to recall their past situations and symptoms, and broad guidelines were given instead. Both groups had three sessions with comparable educational material.

In the usual care group, participants were instructed to carry on with their usual approach to activity, and were assessed at baseline, 10 weeks and six months, using the same assessment process as those in the experimental arms.

Outcome measures were fatigue, measured by the Brief Fatigue Inventory (Mendoza, Wang, Cleeland, Morrissey, Johnson, Wendt & Huber, 1999); and the 8-item PROMIS fatigue short form. Pain severity was measured using the pain subscale drawn from the WOMAC. Additional measures included the 6-minute walk test; the WOMAC physical disability short form scale; the Arthritis Self-Efficacy Scale; the CES-D depression measure, and various demographic and disease measures (joint space narrowing, osteophyte formation etc). Finally, to determine activity pacing adherence, the pacing subscale of the Chronic Pain Coping Inventory was used (Jensen, Turner, Romano & Strom, 1995).

What did they find?

Well, you may have guessed from the title of this post: although people given the pacing intervention said they benefited, and they changed the way they carried out daily activities, the results showed that although they did so, the only significant change on measures taken was for WOMAC pain, in which the people in the general pacing group reduced their pain over the first 10 weeks. BUT participants in the usual care group reduced their pain over six months!

What does this mean?

Should we all throw out the idea of paced activities? Should occupational therapists despair and go back to the drawing board?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

I think targeting pain intensity is possibly the wrong outcome in a study like this. We already have a vast collection of studies showing that pain intensity and disability are not well-correlated. Pain intensity alone isn’t the main reason people stop doing things when they have osteoarthritis – it’s often fear that the pain signifies “bone on bone” and “wear and tear” and “cartilage disintegration” (Hendry, Williams, Markland, Wilkinson & Maddison, 2006). And we also know that people with osteoarthritis develop their own self-management strategies and that these focus on maintaining everyday social roles and valued activities (Morden, Jinks, Bie Nio, 2011). Values seem to help people engage in demanding activities, whether the demands are because the activities hurt, or they’re physically demanding, or they’re not our favourite thing to do (think vacuum cleaning when Mum is coming to visit!) (McCracken & Keogh, 2009).

Perhaps, by drawing attention to both activities and pain intensity, the therapists in this study created a situation where pain intensity became more salient to the participants. Perhaps, too, aiming to reduce pain doesn’t take into account the other values people may hold. For example, even if I’m sore I’ll rush around cleaning if I know my parents (or other visitors) are coming to visit. My pain intensity matters less than feeling embarrassed at an untidy house.

I think we need to revisit the aims of pacing activity. To me there are several reasons for having the strategy available when/if needed:

  1. If I want to work consistently at something that’s going to take a week or two to do. Example: I recently laid bricks under my cherry tree. I did this over three weekends because digging into really hard soil, heaving bags of sand, and placing the bricks is something that increases my pain quite a lot. Because I have other things to achieve over the weekend and during the week, and laying the bricks wasn’t a top priority, I chose to do about a metre square each day of each weekend.
  2. If I’m aiming to do something quite demanding – like go on a two-day tramp (hike). I’ll try to build my activity tolerance over similar terrain with similar loads in advance of the actual trip.
  3. If I really loathe the job and would otherwise avoid it… For example, vacuuming and mopping my floors. I’ll do a room at a time because I seriously do not enjoy housework!

Looking at activity management in isolation from what a person believes is important makes this strategy pretty unpalatable. Combine it with values, and we’re starting to see something that can be employed flexibly and when it’s workable.


Hendry, M., Williams, N. H., Markland, D., Wilkinson, C., & Maddison, P. (2006). Why should we exercise when our knees hurt? A qualitative study of primary care patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Family Practice, 23(5), 558-567.

Jensen MP, Turner JA, Romano JM, Strom SE. (1995). The Chronic Pain Coping Inventory: development and preliminary validation. PAIN ;60, 203–16.

McCracken, L. M., & Keogh, E. (2009). Acceptance, mindfulness, and values-based action may counteract fear and avoidance of emotions in chronic pain: An analysis of anxiety sensitivity. The Journal of Pain, 10(4), 408-415. doi:

Mendoza TR, Wang XS, Cleeland CS, Morrissey M, Johnson BA, Wendt JK, Huber SL. (1999). The rapid assessment of fatigue severity in cancer patients: use of the Brief Fatigue Inventory. Cancer 85, 1186–96.

Murphy, S. L., Kratz, A. L., Kidwell, K., Lyden, A. K., Geisser, M. E., & Williams, D. A. (2016). Brief time-based activity pacing instruction as a singular behavioral intervention was not effective in participants with symptomatic osteoarthritis. Pain, 157(7), 1563-1573.

Morden, A., Jinks, C., & Bie Nio, O. (2011). Lay models of self-management: How do people manage knee osteoarthritis in context? Chronic Illness, 7(3), 185-200.

Nielson WR, Jensen MP, Karsdorp PA, Vlaeyen JW. (2013). Activity pacing in chronic pain: concepts, evidence, and future directions. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29, 461–8.

Persson, D., Andersson, I., & Eklund, M. (2011). Defying aches and revaluating daily doing: Occupational perspectives on adjusting to chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 18(3), 188-197. doi:



  1. You make some excellent points, Bronnie. Volition should be at the center of pacing strategy for our patients. I was working with a patient this week on feeding and nursing was telling me the patient was not eating her meals. Before addressing this in my goals, I asked the family and found out she’s always been a grazer. Eating a full meal is not what she does. Patient centered approach dictates that we always look at what is right for that individual patient, including when we work on pain management and pacing. Thanks again for the great read!

    1. Alexa, I totally agree – we have to be sensitive to values and longstanding habits: and in the end, it’s never our choices that matter in comparison with the decisions the person makes.

  2. Bronnie – I appreciate the idea of using pacing in a targeted way, as opposed to a daily strategy. I was expecting to see you include managing a bad flare (or helping a patient with very unstable symptoms) – have you not had success with that line of attack?

    1. Hi Jay, pacing isn’t really something I use for flare-ups because I have a flare-up management plan which is developed in advance with people (and of course for myself). Pacing at that time is a slightly different concept – how do we decide what is “achievable” and what can be done consistently? I prefer to have an established “baseline” or fallback position in which important activities for the day/week are planned, with restorative and refreshing opportunities built in throughout that time period. I suppose it is kind of like “pacing” except that the content of the “activity” component is more flexible, and the timing of the restorative breaks is dependent on what’s valued and what the activity components are. I aim not to use pain as a guide but instead use values to guide engagement, and mindfulness as a key strategy for being present instead of anticipating trouble or remembering the last time it all went belly up! I also help the person notice the thoughts and emotions they’re fused with (ie that they find they totally believe and which are at odds with values and committed actions) – by “de-fusing” from those thoughts and emotions, people can arrive at a choice point and decide on and ongoing basis, just what they want to remain committed to. It’s messy, fluid, flexible and permissive which can be hard for us as clinicians to go with! But it’s life and how we all live…

  3. Great post Bronnie! I think one of the issues is that we are only looking at activity in exertion measures and not assessing the lived experience of the activities of a person. The meaning, context, and individual experience of pleasure, productivity, restoration and social connection all play a role in every activity. The amount any activity is draining or restorative depends entirely on the individual. We need to dig a lot deeper into the human occupational experience than just pacing to help individuals in pain.

    1. Yes! Things like flow experiences, the importance a person places on what they do vs the importance they place on managing fatigue or pain, and the quality of each activity is something that hasn’t been factored into studies of pacing. The measures of pacing (including pedometers or accelerometers) don’t incorporate these contextual factors, making it difficult to truly understand daily decisions made by people. I think clinicians need to really think about the purpose of pacing before recommending it (and this might influence whether the person adopts it, or doesn’t).

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