Research has shown that exercise can help reduce arthritis pain and improve range of motion, and it’s now considered an essential part of arthritis management.
This is a far cry from days past, when people with arthritis were warned to not exercise to avoid further damage to joints. Doctors now know that, in addition to all its heart health benefits, regular exercise can:
- Reduce inflammation, stiffness, and joint pain
- Build muscle around joints, better supporting them and protecting them from shock and daily wear and tear
- Increase flexibility
- Improve endurance
You do need to take some special precautions to make sure that your exercise routine provides maximum benefit while reducing the risk of injury and pain from sore joints.
Before You Begin Exercising With Arthritis
Also look into exercise classes designed just for people with arthritis. These classes can show you specific techniques and help you adapt them to your individual condition. You could also share information with other arthritis patients about exercise strategies that work. These programs often are offered through health clubs, community centers, and the Y.
Creating Your Arthritis-Friendly Workout
The best exercise program for people with arthritis has a number of components and a certain order in which they should be done.
The warm-up. It is essential that you warm up prior to each workout session. If you don’t give your muscles and joints a chance to warm up, injury and pain are much more likely. Spend at least five minutes walking or doing another activity at a slow pace. You also might consider applying heat to your joints prior to exercise, to help loosen them up.
The exercises. There are three main types of exercises recommended by the Arthritis Foundation:
- Flexibility or stretching exercises improve your range of motion and ease of movement. These are the most essential exercises for arthritis patients and should be performed at least once a day. After your gentle warm-up, devote the next 15 minutes to flexibility exercises. Mind-body disciplines like yoga or tai chi include some of the best range-of-motion exercises available.
Flexibility exercise tips for greater success:
- Move slowly, gently, and deliberately.
- Don’t push yourself past slight discomfort.
- Stretch in a warm room, which will help your muscles relax and move more easily.
- Strength training exercises benefit sore joints by building up the muscles around them. The Arthritis Foundation recommends that people perform strength training every other day, after your flexibility exercises.
Strength training exercises include isometric exercises that work muscles without moving the joint, such as squeezing your thigh muscle while lying on your back, and isotonic exercises that work muscles while moving (bending) the joint, such as a leg press and a partial chair squat.
Strength training tips for greater success:
- You must take a day off between strength training sessions to give your muscles time to recover.
- Ease into strength training — don’t lift heavy weights too soon.
- If you feel joint pain, lower the resistance or amount of weight you’re using, or switch to another exercise that works the same muscle group.
- Aerobic exercise is a recommended addition to your workout routine once you are able to comfortably do both flexibility and strength training exercises. Aerobics are good for your overall health and wellness — just be sure to choose the right type of activity for you.
Aerobic exercise tips for greater success:
- Avoid high-impact activities. Walking is a good form of aerobic exercise for people with arthritis; jogging and running are not.
- Explore non-impact aerobic activities. Water aerobics and swimming are excellent forms of aerobics that don’t stress the joints. Bicycling is another good way to get aerobic exercise.
- Aim to do aerobic exercise three or four days a week. Ultimately, on each of these days you want to do at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in the target heart range recommended by your doctor, but start slowly, with even just five minutes.
- Pay attention to your body. If you have pain that lasts longer than one hour after an aerobic workout or if you find yourself with swollen joints or joints that are more stiff and weak, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about how to adapt your workout.
- Ease out of exercise. Just as you warmed up at the beginning, be sure to give yourself 5 to 10 minutes to cool your muscles and joints. Do your aerobic activity at a slow pace to bring your heart rate down and then perform more stretches, rather than stopping exercise abruptly.
- Take a soak. Some time spent in a warm whirlpool, sauna, or steam room may help relax muscles and joints that have been stressed by exercise.
- Ice it. If you’ve got sore joints, apply ice or cold packs to help reduce inflammation.
Yes, you have to be more careful about your exercise plan when you have arthritis, but the benefits go beyond heart health. Exercise is essential to stay mobile and enjoy life.