If you have joint pain from arthritis, your body still needs movement. Even arthritic joints can benefit from regular physical activity. In fact, exercise lubricates the joints and delivers oxygen and nutrients to the joint tissue so it functions in a healthier manner. Without this movement, your muscles and joints become stiffer, and getting around becomes harder.
Plus, the lack of movement leads to muscle atrophy where the muscles contract and become smaller. The loss of muscle mass will, in the long run, worsen arthritis symptoms and is harmful to health in general. One reason older people lose function is due to muscle atrophy. There’s also the strength factor. Strong muscles support the joints and protect against injury.
Working out with arthritis is more challenging, but doing so also improves flexibility, mobility, and overall health. The health component includes better cardiovascular health, improved insulin sensitivity along with an improvement in mood and brain health.
If you have arthritis, choose the type of workouts you do carefully. Some forms of exercise are better than others if you have painful joints. Before starting an exercise program with arthritis, check with your physician. However, these are the options health professionals believe are safe for people with arthritis.
Strength training doesn’t just build strength and muscle size, you need it for healthy joints too. Strength training strengthens the muscles that support and protect your joints against injury. For example, physical therapists help clients with knee arthritis build and strengthen their quadriceps, the large muscle in the front of the thigh. The reason? When this muscle is larger and thicker, it absorbs some shock your knee joint is exposed to. Shock absorption is important if you’re trying to protect your joints.
Also, you need exercise for bone health. If you can’t do high-impact exercise because of chronic joint pain, strength training is a way to preserve the health of your bones. The pushing and pulling action of strength training signals bone-producing cells called osteoblasts to lay down new bone tissue.
Most physical therapists and sports medicine physicians recommend that people with arthritis work with lighter weights and do higher repetitions. Choose weights that allow you to do between 12 and 25 repetitions before your muscles are fatigued. As you get stronger, increase the resistance.
You don’t even need weights to get started. Resistance bands work just as well and have the advantage of working your muscles from every angle. You can do most exercises that you do with dumbbells or a barbell with resistance bands.
Stretching and Range-of-Motion Exercises
The goal of stretching and range-of-motion exercises is to lengthen your muscles and make them more flexible. However, you won’t see a difference until you’ve stretched consistently for a while. Why is flexibility important if you have arthritis? When your joints are more flexible, it improves mobility and helps you do activities with less pain and stiffness. Therefore, stretching can relieve some symptoms of arthritis and make getting around easier.
How can you add stretching to your training? At the end of every workout, spend 10 minutes stretching and doing range-of-motion exercises. Examples are arm circles, ankle circles, and arm swings. Do these exercises when you wake up in the morning too, to reduce stiffness. Follow up with a warm shower to further ease stiff muscles in the morning.
When you stretch, let pain be your guide. You might feel mild discomfort during a stretch, but it shouldn’t be painful. If it does, you’re extending the stretch too far and stretching too aggressively.
Of course, you need exercise that boosts your heart rate too. Walking at a brisk pace has heart-health benefits, but it also relieves joint stiffness by boosting joint lubrication. Walking at a moderate to brisk pace is a low-impact exercise since one foot is on the ground at all times. But if you break into a run, it becomes high impact and places more stress on your joints. So, keep the pace brisk, but don’t move so quickly that both feet leave the ground.
It is also safest to walk on level ground and a soft, even terrain to reduce the impact on your joints. Be sure to wear a sturdy pair of walking shoes that support your foot and have enough padding to reduce the impact of your feet against the ground. Walking has benefits because you can do it almost anywhere. Always warm-up for 10 minutes with dynamic movements, such as leg kicks, to increase your core body temperature.
Walking outdoors has added benefits since you can enjoy the beauty of nature for added stress relief.
Swimming and other water exercises are the easiest on your joints. In fact, you can do exercise in the water that you couldn’t comfortably do on land, due to the buoyancy of the water. The Arthritis Foundation recommends that arthritis sufferers take part in water aerobics to boost joint flexibility in a safe and effective way. Even better, do water aerobics in a warm pool and let the warmth sooth your achy joints. The heat also helps relax tight muscles that cover the joint.
Other Types of Low-Impact Aerobics
Walking and water exercise aren’t the only options for boosting your heart rate and getting an effective cardio workout with arthritis. Recumbent bikes are a favorite of physical therapists and orthopedists, these bikes have a large seat that supports your back and spine while you pedal.
Another low-impact option is an elliptical machine. You can even buy these items used from a secondhand sporting good store or online. Don’t forget about spin workouts! Spin workouts are ideal for boosting heart rate while burning calories in a low-impact manner.
Circuit training, where you run through a series of strength exercises, using lighter weights, without resting between exercises, also elevates the heart rate and provides some cardiovascular benefits. Step training can also be low impact, as long as you keep one foot on the bench or ground at all times.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why you need to exercise if you have arthritis and the best forms of low-impact exercise to get the job done. Go slow at first, and if you feel pain or discomfort, stop. Also, vary the type of workout you do to avoid working the same muscles and joints over and over again.
- Mayo Clinic. “Exercise Helps Ease Arthritis Pain and Stiffness”
- org. “Role of Exercise in Arthritis Management”
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Training Clients With Arthritis”
- org. “Get in the Habit of Stretching”
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