Exercise and arthritis are two words that are not usually used together. But they should be. Exercise is very important for people who have arthritis because regular physical activity can help decrease joint pain and fatigue, increase strength and flexibility, and control joint swelling and pain. Exercise also has been shown to enhance energy, and improve sleep and general well-being. Exercise will not aggravate joint pain and stiffness. In reality, the opposite is true. Not exercising can actually weaken muscles and surrounding tissue resulting in less support for your bones and more stress on your joints.
So how do you get started exercising if you have arthritis? You can begin by talking with your doctor to determine what kinds of exercise are good for you. The goals of an exercise program should focus on range of motion and stretching to relieve stiffness, strengthening muscles to support and protect joints, and aerobic exercise to help with overall fitness. It is important to remember to engage in regular physical activity that targets the entire body, not just the joints that are affected by arthritis. Also, talk with your doctor about whether you should avoid exercise during acute flares. Some health care providers advise patients to rest during these situations.
Exercising does not have to be strenuous to provide health benefits. Gentle stretching exercises, which should be done every day, involve moving joints through their normal range of motion, such as raising your arms above your head. These flexibility exercises can be done to help you warm-up before more strenuous exercises and then again to cool down and relax. Other good range-of-motion exercises include yoga and tai chi.
Strengthening exercises help build strong muscles so they can better support the joints. There are two kinds of strengthening exercises: isometric exercises work by tightening the muscles without moving the joints; and isotonic exercises strengthen the muscles by moving the joints. Strengthening exercises can be done every other day after some flexibility exercises.
People with arthritis should avoid high-impact aerobic activities, such as running, jumping, tennis, or any sport that involves repeating the same movement again and again. Instead, low-impact activities, including walking, riding a bike, or swimming, are recommended to improve cardiovascular health and control weight. The type of activity you choose will depend on the type of arthritis you have, joints involved and their stability, amount of inflammation, any joint replacements, and other physical limitations. Begin slowly and eventually work your way up to about 30 minutes of aerobic activity three times per week. You can split that time into 10-minute increments to better suit your comfort level or not overexert yourself. Try to pick exercises that you enjoy and fit into your daily schedule.
Don’t let arthritis slow you down. In the long run, being inactive can lead to muscle atrophy and further increase joint instability. Exercise can not only help your joints feel better, but it also may decrease anxiety, improve your mood, and promote relaxation.
For more information about exercise and arthritis, talk with your doctor or visit the Arthritis Foundation website at www.arthritis.org.