Tips for Exercising With Arthritis

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Tips for Exercising With Arthritis

Arthritis, particularly of the hip, spine and shoulder, can be extremely painful and cause stiff joints. Whether you’re experiencing sharp, dull or burning pain or you feel extreme pressure, it can almost feel as if a boa constrictor is squeezing your joints. Because chronic arthritis pain is common, it can become frustrating and cause you distress.

That’s why exercise for arthritis sufferers is so important. It reduces joint pain, increases flexibility, improves strength and helps to combat fatigue. According to the Arthritis Foundation, exercise is one of the best things you can do for arthritis of the hip. Exercising helps support your hips by strengthening the muscles and maintaining range of motion. You can ease hip pain and reduce your chances of injury by stretching the tendons and muscles around your joint.

exercise to help hip arthritis

Those with shoulder arthritis know the limited mobility and severe pain of this condition can make physical activity a challenge. But, if you don’t exercise your shoulder, it can lead to joint instability, muscle atrophy, further joint degeneration and even potential adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder.) There are also some activities and exercises that are enjoyable and appropriate for spinal arthritis sufferers.

Surely, just thinking about swimming a few laps or walking around your neighborhood with painful, stiff joints might seem overwhelming. But you don’t have to swim like an Olympic competitor or run a marathon to reduce your arthritis symptoms. It only takes moderate exercise to potentially relieve your arthritis pain. Following proper exercising techniques is also crucial to preventing further arthritic damage.

This guide provides you with information about the benefits of exercising for arthritis sufferers, tips for exercising with arthritis and some interesting statistics about arthritis. Let’s start with some facts and figures about this common condition.

350 million people with arthritis

Interesting Arthritis Statistics

Everywhere you go, you’ll find individuals with arthritis. If you’re an arthritis sufferer, you know your condition not only impacts you, but often your employer and family as well, sometimes costing productivity, money and quality of life.

For instance:

  • There are approximately 350 million individuals with arthritis worldwide.
  • In the United States alone, more than 50 million adults have been diagnosed with arthritis.
  • By the year 2040, it’s anticipated that more than 78 million people will receive a diagnosis of arthritis.
  • One-third of all working individuals have arthritis and are limited in the type of work they can perform, their ability to work and whether they can work full- or part-time.
  • Each year, individuals with either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis miss around 172 million workdays combined.
  • Each year, arthritis contributes to more than $156 billion in medical expenses and lost wages.

Knowing these statistics, wouldn’t you want to do something that can potentially improve your arthritis symptoms and quality of life?

Benefits of Exercise for Adults With Arthritis

The days when physicians tell people who have arthritis to “rest their joints” are long gone. Physicians now advise people with arthritis to be more physically active to help reduce their pain and improve mobility, mood, function and quality of life. Exercising with arthritis can enhance your fitness and health without hurting your joints.

Although nothing is permanent or guaranteed, with your current treatment program, exercise can:

  • Help maintain the strength of your bones.
  • Strengthen joint muscles.
  • Help with weight control.
  • Provide you with more energy all day long.
  • Improve your balance.
  • Help you sleep better.
  • Enhance your quality of life.

You may think that exercise with arthritis leads to more stiffness and joint pain, but this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s the other way around. When you don’t exercise or get enough physical activity in your life, it can cause your joints to be stiffer. This is because your muscles and surrounding tissue need to be strengthened to maintain bone support. You weaken those supporting muscles when you don’t exercise, which creates additional stress on your joints.

exercise to improve joint function

Exercise for people with arthritis is just as important as it is for those without arthritis. In fact, studies have shown that low-impact, moderate-intensity physical activity helps improve your joint function and quality of life without worsening the severity or symptoms of your condition. Being physically active and exercising with arthritis can put off the onset of disability.

Many arthritis sufferers avoid exercising due to symptoms that can make it difficult to be active physically, coupled with unclear expectations of the benefits and a lack of understanding about the best types of exercise to do.

Levels of Exercise for People With Arthritis

The American College of Rheumatology recognizes three primary levels of exercise for arthritis: rehabilitative/therapeutic, leisure/recreational and elite/competitive. An optimal arthritis and exercise routine will have the right balance of all three:

  1. Leisure or Recreational Activities: These types of activities can range from swimming and cross-country skiing to walking and running. The proper way of doing them is to perform them in a safe and controlled manner that minimizes your risk of injury and doesn’t place a lot of stress on your joints. In many cases, you still need to incorporate therapeutic exercises as well.
  2. Rehabilitative or Therapeutic Exercises: These types of exercises are prescribed by your physical therapist or other health professionals. Rehabilitative or therapeutic exercises are designed to address specific joints and areas of your body that are affected by your arthritis, or surgery related to your arthritis. They are often the first step necessary if you’ve been inactive for some time, are experiencing joint pain, have restricted joint motion or are recovering from a joint replacement or another type of arthritis-related surgery.
  3. Elite or Competitive-Level Activities: These activities require greater training and skill and are performed at longer durations and higher intensities. It’s rare that individuals with arthritis can return to an elite or competitive level of physical activity, but some have. As a general rule, however, it’s not recommended that you exercise at competitive or elite levels if you have sport-related joint problems or inflammatory arthritis. If your arthritis is in its early stages and mild, you can talk with your physical therapist, rheumatologist or orthopedic specialist before continuing with this level of exercising.

benefits of exercising with arthritis

Types of Exercises for Arthritis

Your physician, physical therapist or orthopedic specialist will suggest the best exercise for arthritis. This regime could include strengthening exercises, cardio, range-of-motion exercises and other physical activities.

You can look into the various types of exercise programs that might be held in health clubs, hospitals, libraries and clinics in your area. You can also reach out to your local Arthritis Foundation center for information, as they conduct exercise programs in many areas of the U.S.

aerobic exercise to help with fitness

Cardio Exercising

Aerobic or cardio exercises help increase your overall fitness. They give you more energy and stamina, while helping control your weight and improving your cardiovascular health.

Low-impact cardio exercises are easier on your joints. They use your body’s large muscles in a rhythmic and repetitive manner, in addition to improving your lung, heart and muscle function. When you have arthritis, this form of exercise benefits your sleep, mood, weight control and general health.

Examples of cardio exercises include:

  • Walking
  • Aquatic exercise
  • Aerobic dance
  • Treadmills
  • Stationary bikes
  • Elliptical trainers

Moderate-intensity cardio activities are most effective when you perform them for at least 10 minutes per session and 150 minutes or more per week. However, even exercising a couple of days a week is much better for you than not exercising at all. If you’re able to exercise while carrying on a conversation, you could be at the moderate-intensity level of exercise, but you should consult with your physician first to be sure

Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening exercises help protect and support your joints and build strong muscles. A good example of a strengthening exercise that helps increase and maintain your muscle strength is weight training.

These robust exercises work your muscles a bit harder. As your muscles start to get stronger, it reduces stress and load on painful joints and provides you with greater joint support. Stronger muscles also help reduce bone loss from inactivity, inflammatory arthritis and certain medications, like corticosteroids. It also contributes to better function.

Examples of strengthening exercises include:

  • Weight training with dumbbells, machines or weight cuffs
  • Sit-ups, push-ups and other resistance exercises that use your body weight
  • Working with resistance bands
  • Shoveling, digging and other heavy gardening
  • Different types of exercise classes
  • Exercise videos on muscle strengthening

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend performing muscle-strengthening exercises a minimum of two days per week, some experts advise refraining from strengthening exercises on the same groups of muscles two days in a row. In other words, consider taking one day off between your strengthening workouts, and if your joints are swollen or painful, take a couple of extra days off.

refrain from strengthening exercises on the same groups of muscles in a row

Exercising places strain on your muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones and joints. Rest days are helpful to allow your muscles to repair and your body to recuperate. And if you don’t allow your body to rest, you run a greater risk of injury.

Flexibility and Range-of-Motion Exercises

These types of exercises increase joint mobility to their fullest range of motion and relieve stiffness. Range-of-motion exercises are essential stretching and warm-up exercises to help preserve joint function. They should be performed before you begin any endurance or strengthening exercises, or engage in other types of physical activity. You can typically perform these exercises daily.

Examples of range-of-motion exercises include:

  • Rolling shoulders back and forth
  • Raising arms above your head
  • Head turns
  • Knee lifts
  • Forward arm reach
  • Back pat and rub
  • Elbow bend and turn

With this group of exercises, you can condition your affected joints by gently bending and straightening your joints in a controlled manner. You stretch your joints progressively further with range-of-motion exercises until you can achieve and maintain near-normal or normal range. Range-of-motion exercises also are geared toward preserving function while maintaining comfort.

physician can recommend balance activities

Balance Activities

Balance exercises are another exercise and arthritis group of movements that are less recognized, but beneficial. They are also known as body-awareness exercises and include activities that enhance balance, posture, coordination, proprioception (joint position sense) and relaxation.

Although you can achieve these improvements with the other three forms of exercise above, specific exercises are often needed for problem areas. Yoga and tai chi are good examples of body-awareness exercises.

When arthritis affects your joints and surrounding muscles, or if you had a joint replaced, it often leads to impaired position awareness, coordination and balance, in addition to increasing your risk of falling. Your physician or physical therapist can recommend balance activities to help reduce your risk of injury and improve your overall function.

Examples of balance exercises include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Side stepping
  • Backward walking
  • Toe-and-heel walking
  • Standing on one foot

Combining a few of these balance activities in one routine can be beneficial.

Other Physical Activities

Any movement can help — regardless of how small it is. Daily activities like raking leaves or mowing your lawn can count as beneficial physical activities. But so do more enjoyable activities like walking your dog, playing golf or dancing.

Before Starting Your Exercise Routine

There are a few steps you should take before you start any exercise routine. These are included below.

Check With Your Physician

It’s important to let your physician, rheumatologist, orthopedic specialist or physical therapist know you’re going to begin an exercise routine. Your doctor might have you refrain from certain types of exercises due to your medical history.

You should consult with your physician about how hard and how long you should exercise, too. If you’re new to exercising, your doctor will probably have you start slowly and build up gradually, and not exceed a certain level of exercise. As mentioned above, he may also refer you to a specific program or certified professional trainer with experience in exercise for arthritis sufferers.

Set Modest Goals When Starting

Once you decide you’re ready to change your life and begin to exercise with arthritis, you may be unsure of how to start. If you have a big goal, such as losing 100 pounds, break it up into smaller, attainable goals you can work through and accomplish. This will help keep you motivated.

For example, if you set a goal to exercise 30 minutes a day, even if you break that 30 minutes into two 15-minute increments, you’ll still derive the benefit of the entire 30 minutes of activity. If going to the gym seems overwhelming when you’re first getting started, consider beginning your workout routine at home with an exercise DVD. This will help you get more active while boosting your confidence.

don't let fear keep you from reducing your pain

Get Courageous

Beginning a new fitness routine can be challenging for anyone, especially those exercising with arthritis. This is understandable. But don’t allow fear to keep you from taking the steps that will help improve function and reduce your pain.

This is the time to get courageous. It will take time and effort, but the benefits of a regular workout routine will make it all worth it, especially when you can live a healthy, better-quality life. Make friends with other arthritis sufferers who are also embarking on this journey so you can encourage and inspire one another.

Modify as Needed

You will have good days where you feel great, and bad days where your arthritis symptoms, like stiffness, pain and fatigue, will be at their worst. Take a break on your bad days, but don’t quit exercising altogether, as that can worsen your arthritis symptoms. Try modifying your activities first before you take a break so you can remain as active as possible. Remember, any activity is better than no activity at all.

Modifying can include:

  • Doing fewer repetitions of a particular exercise
  • Slowing down the activity
  • Ensuring the place you work out is safe

For instance, if you enjoy walking in your local park or neighborhood, just make sure the paths and sidewalks you take are well-lighted, level and free of obstructions. The last thing you want to do is trip and fall, causing more joint pain.

Good Techniques to Incorporate While Exercising

If it’s been awhile since you’ve been active, ease your joints into the activity slowly. You don’t want to worsen your joint pain and overwork your muscles by pushing too hard. Be aware of the techniques you use, as well. Bad techniques can also further damage.

Some techniques you should consider include:

  • Perform low-impact exercises. Stick to low-impact exercises like recumbent or stationary bikes, exercising in water or using elliptical trainers. These all allow you to move, but reduce joint stress.
  • Apply heat. You can apply heat treatments like hot packs, showering or warm towels around 20 minutes before you begin exercising to relieve pain and relax your muscles and joints.
  • Use gentle movements. Warm up first by gently moving your joints. This would be a good time for your range-of-motion exercises before you step into your cardio or strength-training activities.
  • Go slowly. Perform easy and slow movements when exercising. Take a break if you feel pain. Be aware of the type of pain which could indicate a problem, such as strong or sharp pain that’s not normal to you. If you notice any redness or joint swelling, slow down.
  • Apply ice after exercise. After exercising, it’s a good idea to apply ice to your joints for around 20 minutes, particularly if you notice any swelling.

Never overexert yourself or put more stress on your joints with exercise that is too vigorous. Listen to your body. Always begin slowly, and gradually work your way up in intensity and length. You can expect some joint aching and soreness after exercise because of your arthritis, particularly in the first few weeks after starting a new exercise routine. However, sticking to your exercise routine can provide you with substantial, long-term pain relief.

bad exercise technique

What to Do If in Pain After Exercising

If you do experience pain while working out, there are healthy ways to manage it. These include:

  • Reducing the duration (length of sessions) or frequency (days of the week) of your exercise program until you feel an improvement in your pain.
  • Reducing the impact on your joints by changing the exercises you are performing (e.g., you can try water exercises instead of walking).
  • Properly warming up before exercising and cooling down afterward.
  • Sticking to a comfortable pace while exercising (if you can’t carry on a conversation during your routine, you may have to lower the pace).
  • Wearing comfortable clothing and shoes.

Signs to Halt Exercising

The last section described things that you can do to minimize pain while exercising. However, there are also signs that you should stop what you’re doing and see your doctor. These signs include:

  • Stabbing, sharp and constant pain
  • Pain after exercise that lasts for more than a couple of hours or gets worse at night
  • Pain that makes you limp
  • Pain not relieved by hot/cold packs, rest or medication
  • A significant increase in hot, red or swollen joints

exercise to help arthritis and improve function

Arthritis and exercise is not an impossible combination. Individuals with arthritis who stay active on a regular basis experience more energy, less pain, better day-to-day function and improved sleep. When your body is used to regular exercising, it can help keep you going when arthritis threatens to immobilize you. Still not convinced? Try it yourself. However, if you have persistent arthritis, give us a call at (855) 853-6542 to request a consultation with one of our doctors.