Osteoarthritis is one of the most common health issues people experience as they age. It’s a disease that affects cartilage, the layer of tissue that covers the tips of bones in joints and helps absorb shock. In osteoarthritis, the outer layer of cartilage wears down so the bones are subjected to more friction and shock with movement, causing the cartilage to erode away. This problem can worsen over time and lead to symptoms like early morning stiffness, reduced range-of-motion, swelling in the joint and pain.
At one time, experts believed that exercise hastened the onset of osteoarthritis but there’s more and more evidence that exercise may reduce your risk for osteoarthritis and improve the symptoms of people who have it. What is the link between osteoarthritis and exercise?
Exercise and Osteoarthritis
Sitting on the sidelines isn’t good for your joints. Recent research now shows that being inactive is a risk factor for osteoarthritis. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, your risk is higher for this common health problem. So staying active is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for future osteoarthritis.
In one study, researchers compared people at high risk for osteoarthritis who did light, moderate and strenuous physical exercise. They found the least amount of cartilage breakdown in those who did light exercise, consisting of mostly low-impact exercise compared to those who did no exercise and those who did high-impact exercise.
Another study published in the journal Rheumatology also showed that exercise is beneficial for osteoarthritis prevention. They looked at the total number of hours a group of 800 men and women with knee osteoarthritis had exercised during their lifetime and found those who had done moderate amounts of exercise were less likely to have severe osteoarthritis of the knee compared to those who did little exercise. Being a couch potato isn’t good for your joints.
Is High-Impact Exercise a Risk Factor for Osteoarthritis?
It seems clear that low-impact exercise offers protective joint benefits – but what about high-impact exercise? Certain people are at higher risk for osteoarthritis due to family history. You may also be at higher risk if you’ve had a joint injury in the past or worked at an occupation where you did a lot of lifting.
If you fall into one of these categories, you may want to limit the amount of running and jumping you do. This is especially true if you’re already experiencing joints aches and pains. This doesn’t mean you can’t do a high-intensity workout. Some step workout routines get your heart rate up into the high-intensity zone without pounding your joints as do workouts like my Low Impact series. Also, it should be noted that there are several studies on runners that show that avid runners don’t have an increased rate of osteoarthritis when compared to those who don’t run.
Spin workouts are another low-impact exercise option you can take to a high intensity. If you’re at high risk for osteoarthritis or already have joint issues, these are better choices than running and high-impact plyometric routines that require jumping. The constant impact of running on hard pavement is particularly hard on the joints.
Even if you aren’t at high risk for osteoarthritis, it’s important to start caring for your joints early. Give your joints a rest by not doing high-impact exercise every day. Mix it up with low-impact circuit workouts, spinning, and stepping.
Risk for Osteoarthritis and Strength-Training
Don’t neglect strength training. A study published in the Annals of Rheumatologic Disease found that knee osteoarthritis progression was slower in participants who did strength-training as opposed to range-of-motion exercises for the lower body. Another study published by the CDC found that seniors that did lower body strength-training exercises reported 43% less joint pain and discomfort. Strength-training has the added benefit of boosting bone mass.
Still another study found that a combination of exercise and weight loss improved pain and disability in obese people with osteoarthritis of the hip. Low-impact exercise is not only effective for prevention of osteoarthritis – but it also helps to improve the symptoms, reduce disability and increase flexibility.
Obesity is Another Risk Factor for Osteoarthritis
Obesity is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis. Carrying around too much weight puts added stress on joints. Regular cardiovascular exercise combined with strength-training helps with weight control and lowers the risk for osteoarthritis as well.
Research suggests that carrying around too much body fat is linked with inflammation that may worsen osteoarthritis. It also increases joint wear and tear that leads to cartilage breakdown. Even if you have osteoarthritis, losing weight can improve your symptoms significantly. Exercise combined with a healthy diet is one of the best treatments for obesity – and for the prevention of osteoarthritis.
The Bottom Line?
Exercise combined with strength-training helps to reduce cartilage breakdown and improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis in several ways – by strengthening the muscles that lie over your joints, by increasing flexibility and by helping with weight control.
If you have joint issues, talk to your doctor before doing high-impact exercise, but low-impact exercise such as spinning and many step workouts combined with resistance training may help to improve your joint symptoms. If you don’t currently have osteoarthritis, staying active may offer preventative benefits. It’s one more benefit of a good workout.
Medscape.com. “Light Exercise May Delay or Prevent Osteoarthritis of the Knee”
Ann. Rheum. Dis. 55: 692-4. (1996)
Centers for Disease Control. “Why Strength Training?”
Medscape Family Medicine. “Strength Training for Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Systematic Review”
Science Daily “Weight Loss May Prevent, Treat Osteoarthritis in Obese Patients”
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