Arthritis, whether it be osteoarthritis, rheumatoid or some other form, becomes more common with age, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get a calorie-blasting, body-pumping workout. One of the best things for stiff, achy joints is movement. Research shows cardiovascular AND resistance exercise offer benefits for people with arthritis. People with arthritis who don’t exercise are at high risk for loss of bone mass, muscle atrophy, loss of flexibility and decreased functionality.
How does exercise help arthritis symptoms? Regular exercise strengthens the muscles that support the joints to help stabilize them. Plus, it helps with weight loss, and when you shed those extra pounds, it takes pressure off of the joints. Did you know each extra pound that you carry around adds four to six times greater pressure on your joints?
According to the Arthritis Research Primary Care Center at Keele University in England, 25% of cases of knee arthritis can be blamed on being overweight or obese. Losing weight, if you’re overweight, is one of the best ways to take pressure off your joints and exercise can help you do that.
One of the biggest problems arthritis sufferers experience is stiffness, especially early in the morning. Exercise increases flexibility and range-of-motion and helps reduce rigidity. Unfortunately, there’s still the perception that exercise is bad for joints and can lead to joint damage, despite lack of scientific evidence. In fact, a number of studies show that regular exercise actually lowers the risk for arthritis of the knees and improves symptoms in people who already have the disease. As a result of research like this, the American College of Rheumatology encourages people with arthritis to stay active.
Guidelines for Exercising with Arthritis
Depending upon the extent of your arthritis, your doctor may recommend limiting the amount of high-impact exercise you do, activity that involves running or jumping. No problem. You can still get an effective cardiovascular workout with low-impact step training, spin classes, brisk walking, and circuit training.
Not that you shouldn’t take precautions when exercising with arthritis. If you do high-impact workouts, alternate them with low-impact ones and give yourself adequate recovery time between your workouts. If you experience pain during a workout or feel stiff or sore afterward, you’re overdoing it. Remember, low impact doesn’t have to mean low intensity. If you experience a flare-up, take a day off and do stretching exercises to work on flexibility.
Circuit training can be another joint-friendly way to exercise. Circuit training combines the benefits of a cardiovascular workout, assuming you don’t rest between exercises, with muscle endurance and can be a safe and effective form of exercise if you have arthritis. If a particular circuit training exercise feels uncomfortable, you can always modify it.
Relieve Stiffness Before Exercising
If you have arthritis, you’re probably familiar with the stiffness you feel when you first get out of bed. Spend 10 minutes or so doing range-of-motion exercises to work out some of the stiffness and increase your flexibility. Then head for the shower and repeat range-of-motion exercises as the warm water rains down on your muscles and joints. The warm water will ease any stiffness and discomfort you might be having. If you exercise in the morning, do this before beginning your workout. Cold, stiff muscles and joints increase the risk of injury. If you have a choice on when to exercise, later in the day is best when your body temperature is higher and your muscles are joints are the most flexible
Resistance Training with Arthritis
Resistance training is crucial for strengthening the muscles that surround and support your joints and for preserving muscle and bone tissue. Strengthening the muscles over a joint helps the muscles better absorb shock. Better shock absorption means less stress on your joints. Plus, exercise is essential for bone health. Arthritis and osteoporosis is a double whammy – so make sure you’re giving your bones the stimulation they need to stay strong.
If you can’t do high-impact exercise, the type that maximally boosts bone growth, resistance training assumes even greater importance. During resistance training, muscles pull on bones and stimulate the production of new bone. The best resistance exercises for bone growth are “closed chain” ones where hands or feet are fixed to the floor such as squats, lunges, and push-ups.
If you have arthritis in your hands, you may find gripping heavy weights uncomfortable. Another alternative for stiff or painful hands is to use resistance bands rather than weights. You can still get a full-body workout using resistance bands without the discomfort of grasping heavy weights. Resistance training strengthens not only the muscle group you’re targeting, but stabilizer muscles as well.
Don’t Skimp on the Warm-Up
Before doing any form of exercise, get the blood flowing to your muscles and joints by doing a warm-up. Warming up is vital if you suffer from joint stiffness or arthritis. The average person can get by with a 5-minute warm-up, but 10 minutes or even longer is best if you have arthritis. Do dynamic stretching exercises, not static ones, during the warm-up.
The best dynamic stretching exercises are those that mimic the movements you’ll do during your workout. If you’re working the lower body, air squats, leg swings and walking lunges without resistance are good warm-up exercises. Save the static stretches, where you hold the stretch for 20 or 30 seconds, until the end of your workout, as part of the cool-down. Avoid any type of ballistic or bouncing stretches, and be careful not to overstretch arthritis joints.
Keep Your Workouts Varied
Doing a variety of types of workouts not only reduces boredom it will keep you from overusing the same muscles and joints. Make yoga workouts a part of your routine too to help with flexibility. Just remember, if something hurts, don’t do it or modify the exercise.
The Bottom Line
Contrary to popular belief, exercise is safe and beneficial for people with arthritis. As a precaution, talk to your doctor first.
Arthritis Foundation. “Exercising with Osteoarthritis”
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Training Clients With Arthritis”
Med Page Today. “Weight Still Top Risk Factor for Knee Arthritis, Pain” 12/29/14.
Rheumatology (2001) 40 (4): 432-437. doi: 10.1093/rheumatology/40.4.432.
American College of Rheumatology. “Exercise and Arthritis”
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