No matter what type of arthritis you have (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common), staying physically active is a vital part of managing health and feeling your best. Because arthritis involves joint inflammation, pain, swelling, and stiffness, people with arthritis are often sedentary, which makes things worse — speeding up the disease process and putting them at greater risk for other problems like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
But here’s the good news. By following some basic safety precautions, you can enjoy the many benefits of getting fit, like improving flexibility, getting stronger and feeling more energetic. Exercise has been shown to reduce arthritis joint pain and stiffness, while improving strength around your affected joints and improving quality of life.
Enjoy Life in Motion
When you have arthritis, certain types of exercise may be better than others:
Low-impact aerobic activities. Water walking, group fitness water classes, and lap swimming are all easy on the joints. But it’s important to do some low-impact weight-bearing exercise as well, like brisk walking, using the elliptical machine, cycling outdoors or on a stationary bike, or dancing to help keep bones healthy. Depending on your needs and interests, doing a combination of water and land-based activities may be the best approach.
Muscle-strengthening exercises. Strength training helps you stay strong for daily activities and is essential for maintaining your independence. It also boosts bone strength — and helps prevent weight gain. Free weights, weight machines, resistance bands and dumbbells are just a few examples of equipment that can be used for strength training. You can also use your body weight. For example, you can start by getting out of your chair without using your hands; this helps build hip and leg strength.
Flexibility training. This type of exercise helps improve and maintain your joint range of motion, which is especially important with arthritis. Stretch your neck, shoulders, chest, back, arms, wrists, fingers, hips, upper and lower legs, ankles, feet and toes — daily, if possible. Just don’t overdo it; stretching too far can irritate your joints. A little discomfort is expected with stretching, but it shouldn’t be painful.
Protect Your Joints
Before you start an exercise program, talk with your healthcare provider. Be sure to ask for specifics, such as activities that may be especially good for you, activities you should avoid, and how you should manage your pain with regard to physical activity.
Joint protection is the most important part of exercising with arthritis. Follow these precautions:
- Plan ahead. Exercise at a time of day when you have the least amount of joint pain.
- Select shoes carefully. You’ll need footwear with good shock absorption. If you have knee or hip pain, you may also need rigid or semi-rigid arch supports for weight-bearing activities.
- Warm up and cool down. Take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of your workout to slowly ease into it, and then 5-10 minutes at the end to gradually slow down and cool off. This can help keep joint pain to a minimum.
- Easy does it. Go slow and progress gradually. For some, it helps to start with 10 minutes of aerobic activity a couple of times a day, building up to a single session of 30 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week. It’s best to focus on increasing your exercise time rather than intensity while you’re building a fitness base. With strength training, start with a small load, working each major muscle group 2-3 times a week.
- Know what’s normal for you. You may feel some discomfort during and after your workout, but this doesn’t mean your joints are getting worse. Keep track of your symptoms — and talk them over with your health care provider. If your post-exercise joint pain remains for 2 hours and is worse than it was before exercise, scale back on your time and intensity for your next workout.
- Listen to your body. When you’re experiencing a flare-up, take your exercise program down a notch and avoid strenuous activity — but stick with your stretching routine, even if it means easing up a bit.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, lasting weight loss is another way to reduce joint pain and make physical activity more comfortable.
For best results, ask an ACE-certified fitness professional to help you put together a balanced exercise program based on your doctor’s recommendations. Then, team up with a friend or family member — and get moving!
Beth Shepard, M.S., ACE-PT, ACSM-RCEP, Wellcoaches Certified Wellness Coach is a clinical exercise physiologist, health promotion consultant, and educator with more than 20 years of experience in hospital-based exercise and educational programming, wellness coaching and population health management. She is certified by ACE, ACSM, and Wellcoaches Corporation, a volunteer course reviewer for Desert Southwest Fitness, and works with corporate and individual clients to deliver sustainable health behavior change solutions.
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