Exercise and Arthritis

You may think that exercise and arthritis do not go hand in hand. if so, you would be mistaken. It was thought for many years that if you had arthritis you should not exercise because it would damage your joints. Now, however, research has shown that exercise is an essential tool in managing arthritis.

Regular, moderate exercise offers a whole host of benefits to people with arthritis. Mainly, exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness, builds strong muscle around the joints, and increases flexibility and endurance. But it also helps promote overall health and fitness by giving you more energy, helping you sleep better, controlling your weight, decreasing depression, and giving you more self-esteem. Furthermore, exercise can help stave off other health problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease.

Choosing an exercise program

Starting an exercise program can seem like a daunting proposition. The important thing to remember is to start slow and make it fun. It is always good to start with flexibility exercises, which are basically stretching exercises that will improve your range of motion and help you perform daily activities. Once you feel comfortable you can move on to weight training and endurance exercises such as bicycling.

An exercise program can include anything from walking around the block, taking a yoga class, or playing a round of golf. You may be reluctant to exercise because you are in such pain. If this is the case you may want to start with a water exercise program. In the water your body’s buoyancy reduces stress on your hips, knees, and spine.

Whatever exercise program you decide on you should always consult with your doctor before starting out. Two other types of health professionals can help you develop an exercise program that fits your specific needs: physical and occupational therapists. A physical therapist can show you the proper techniques and precautions when performing certain types of exercise. An occupational therapist can show you how to perform daily activities without putting additional stress on your joints and can provide you with splints or assistive devices that can make working out more comfortable.

Water Exercise Programs (see benefits)

The Arthritis Foundation Aquatics Program (AFAP) is a water exercise program designed for people with arthritis and related conditions. Classes are usually conducted 2-3 times per week at local indoor pools for 45-60 minutes. Joining a water exercise class gives you the opportunity to exercise in warm water, with guidance from a trained instructor. For more information about AFAP and other arthritis exercise programs, contact your local office of the Arthritis Foundation.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to a class, have the class come to you. Get your personal copy of one of the Arthritis Foundation’s water exercise videos:

  • Pool Exercise Program (PEP)
  • Fibromyalgia Interval Training (Let’s Get FIT)

Walking and Arthritis

Walking is good for anyone, especially people with arthritis. It’s an endurance exercise, which means it strengthens your heart, helps your lungs work more efficiently, and gives you more stamina so you don’t tire as easily. As a weight-bearing exercise (one that puts full weight on your bones), walking helps strengthen bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). This is especially important if you’re taking glucocorticoids for your arthritis, which can weaken bones.

Walking strengthens your muscles and helps maintain joint flexibility. For people with arthritis, muscle and joint benefits are important because joints become more stiff and muscles weaken with inactivity. As walking strengthens the muscles and tissues surrounding the joints, it helps to protect those joints and keep them ready for daily activities.

In addition to all the physical benefits, walking also brings with it a host of psychological perks. Regular exercise helps you sleep better, controls your weight, and lifts your spirits. It can play an important part in combating the depression, fatigue, and stress that accompany your arthritis.

Warm Up Right

Jumping right into a workout with cold muscles can cause pain in joints and muscles. Movement literally warms up the muscles and reduces the risk of injury.

Stretching warm ups work well before most any exercise, such as weight lifting, or even as an extra warm up before you start to walk or swim. If you are about to walk or swim, then walk or swim to warm up but take it slowly.

Walking is a good way to elevate your temperature and increase your blood flow. It can also get you energized for more strenuous exercise. If weather permits, walk to the end of your driveway, parking lot, or street and back.

  • Walk around your house one or more times.
  • Take your dog for a walk.
  • Walk or march in place for 30-60 seconds during a television commercial.

How to Choose a Personal Trainer

Choosing the right personal trainer for your needs can make or break your fitness program. Not only will the trainer help you reach your goals by designing a safe and effective workout program, this person will serve as your personal cheerleader and educator.

Ask your doctors and physical therapists for their recommendations, and check your local phone directory for centers with trainers knowledgeable about arthritis.

Ask each candidate on your short-list these questions:

  • Are you certified by a nationally recognized organization, such as the International Sport Sciences Association, American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association?
  • Do you have a background that includes exercise physiology, sports medicine, health and wellness, physical education, or anatomy and physiology?
  • What training or experience do you have in working with people with arthritis?
  • Can you provide references from clients with arthritis?
  • Do you network with other health professionals?
  • What do you charge and what services are included?

When you’ve narrowed the field, sign up for a free sample session to evaluate the following:

  • How clearly the trainer communicates instructions;
  • How responsive he or she is to what you say and do;
  • How motivated the trainer makes you feel;
  • How your body feels after the session.

©2003. Reprinted with permission of the Arthritis Foundation, 1330 W. Peachtree St., Suite 100, Atlanta, GA 30309. "Warm Up Right" and "How to Choose a Personal Trainer" originally appeared in Arthritis Today, authored by Michelle Taylor and Suzette Hill, respectively. To get your free copies of Arthritis Foundation brochures or to order Arthritis Today, call (800) 283-7800 or visit www.arthritis.org.