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Exercising with Arthritis: Getting Started

Manage Symptoms with Physical Activity

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If you live with the daily pain and discomfort of arthritis, you're not the only one. In the United States, an estimated 46 million adults (about 1 in 5) have been diagnosed with arthritis. Hopefully your doctor has given you suggestions about how to reduce the symptoms, lessen the debilitating effects, and improve your quality of life. One of these suggestions was probably to engage in regular physical activity. So how do you get motivated to go to the gym when you can't even get out of bed without pain? Is exercise really going to make a difference?

Research shows a positive relationship between arthritis and exercise:
  • A 14-year study published in Arthritis Research and Therapy, analyzed aerobic exercise and its impact on joint pain. Researchers found that exercise was associated with a substantial and significant reduction in pain, among men and women of various shapes and sizes.
  • A 2003 study published in the Journal of Arthritis and Rheumotology found that patients with RA (rheumatoid arthritis) can safely improve their level of physical fitness using a regular strength and endurance training program.
  • Long-term studies have shown that people with inflammatory arthritis can benefit from moderate weight-bearing activity, and reduce the bone loss and small joint damage associated with this condition, wthout increasing pain or disease severity.
  • According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, strength training can help people with arthritis preserve bone density and improve muscle mass, strength and balance.
If you have arthritis, three different kinds of activity should be incorporated into your exercise program: flexibility training, strength training and aerobic exercise. That may seem like a lot, but once you get into a routine and notice the benefits each provides, it will become a normal part of your everyday life.

Flexibility Training
Stiff joints hurt your ability to perform daily tasks, like buttoning a shirt or opening a can. But stretching will improve your range of motion, resulting in greater flexibility and less pain. Stretch every major muscle group daily, paying particular attention to the joints affected by arthritis to help prevent joint stiffness and soreness.
  • Try SparkPeople's Stretching Guide. This program offers a wide variety of stretches, from seated to standing and beginner to advanced. Choose the stretches that work for you and do them on a daily basis.
  • Avoid bouncing during stretches. A stretch should be slow, controlled, and not pushed to the point of pain.
Strength Training
Weak muscles are common in people with arthritis. This decrease in strength is often caused by inactivity (due to the pain of arthritis) or medication side effects. Muscular strength is important because it decreases the stress on your joints, absorbs shock, protects your joints from injury, and helps improve your overall mobility. Before you start a strength training program, talk to your doctor for recommendations based on your condition and the degree of inflammation you experience.
  • Try to perform strengthening exercises every other day. Start slowly and master the form of each exercise without weights, then move up to light weights that you can control. SparkPeople's Guide to Strength Training and Exercise Demos can help you get started.
  • Try isometric exercises. These safe and effective moves contract your muscles but don't move the joint (i.e. holding a bag of groceries). They're great for people with very painful joints because they build muscular strength with very little joint motion. Some examples of isometric exercises in the Fitness Resource Center include: Isometric Biceps Hold with Towel and Isometric Shoulder Hold with Towel. But you can modify any exercise to make it isometric by holding the position without repeating the movement. For example, Dumbbell Squats and Forward Lunges become isometric when you lower into the squat or lunge position and hold it there instead of performing the up and down motion.
  • Avoid strength training if you are experiencing joint swelling or pain. Resume your activities when the swelling and pain subside.
Aerobic Exercise
Weight-bearing activities like walking strengthen your bones, improve your balance and coordination, and help you maintain a healthy weight. In addition to these physical benefits, aerobic exercise helps improve your mood and reduces tension and stress. Aim for 3-4 sessions of aerobic exercise each week.
  • Try exercising in water. Water exercise is gentle on the joints since water acts as a cushion. Warm water also raises your body temperature, which causes your blood vessels to dilate, increasing circulation. Read Exercising in the Water for more details.
  • Try walking. Walking is an easy and safe way for people with arthritis to strengthen their muscles and joints. SparkPeople's Walking Guide will give you all of the tools you need to get started!
  • Avoid overdoing it. Although exercise has many benefits for people with arthritis, it is possible to do too much. Vigorous exercise that aggravates inflammation in the joints is harmful. If exercise-induced joint pain lasts more than two hours, you've done too much.
You and your doctor should work closely to come up with an exercise plan for you. Since each person is different with regards to arthritis type, degree of severity, and limitations, what works for one person might not work for another. That's why it is so important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Starting a consistent exercise program will help manage your disease and reduce your risk of future problems. Arthritis and exercise go hand-in-hand, so get up and get moving!

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Member Comments

  • An interesting article
  • Very helpful. Need to work on increasing my strength training.
  • I do take advantage of my open pool time to waterwalk. It helps my arthritic knees as well as burns calories. This is a helpful article and I thank you for sharing.

    Trailtrodder
  • This article has provided me with great insight as to how to handle my mild care of arthritis.
  • Thanks for the suggestions! They will be put to good use.
  • This article was timely! DH has been struggling with arthritis related pain for a little over a year now. Unfortunately, his primary care practitioner simply told him to exercise. The tips shared here are specific, helpful and appreciated.
  • I used to control my weight by daily visits to the gym. Then came weight gains following extended recovery periods after each surgery or injury. I now weight more than when I joined spark, and walk with a walker. Activity is painful and exercise has slowed. Lately I've been trying to remember some of the exercises Physical Therapy taught me that target specific areas. I am ready to check out the recommended exercises in this article. I see many of the comments are several years old, so I'm glad this article has resurfaced to the Start page today.
  • Robyn319, can you ask your doctor for a swimming exercise program? Water will help take the weight off your hip. I once exercised using a step, but caused damage to a knee. So it is best to be careful. I now am more careful about tracking my food on the SparkPeople site and just walking around my neighborhood. Plus, drinking the 8 glasses of water a day. That is working so far. I'm considering asking my RA specialist for a swimming program, though. Just don't like the inconvenience of going out during the winter. But it's a commitment, isn't it? Not quite there, but my app't is in another week. I'll work up to it. Writing to you helps me firm up my resolve :)
  • ROBYN319
    I've just been told I have hip arthritis with spurs and a cyst...hip replacement going to be in the future. I need to loose about 50 pounds and walking seems to inflame my hip. I ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes and do pilates for 1/2 hour, and stretching but can't seem to take off weight. I eat pretty healthy, but nothing seems to work. I was on the right path over a year ago dropping 30 lbs. by walking when I started having hip and thigh pain. Anyone have any tips on exercising with hip pain?
  • This is a great article. I have bursitis in my left help and I learn to exercise through the pain. It's getting better everyday.
  • REINVENTME127
    One article says avoid weight bearing exercise with arthritis and one says do it. One article says do lunges and one says dont. Most articles i have read said to avoid weight bearing exercise with arthritis.
  • K_RENEE
    I hope these help my knee because sometimes when I exercise it hurts really bad.
  • KTK19147
    Good job, Jen, getting the word out about the benefits of exercise when one has arthritis.
    I must admit as a scientist that I was confused in first reading the article however b/c of your incorrect usage of "positive relationship between arthritis and exercise".

    There's actually a NEGATIVE relationship between these b/c as exercise goes up, arthritis PAIN goes down. This is therefore an inverse or negative correlation/relat
    ionship. A positive relationship would be as one goes up, the other does, too (or down, the other goes down, too)

    I think what you're trying to say is that there's a positive EFFECT on arthritis pain when you exercise.

    Just trying to clarify it from scientific terminology standpoint so people don't get the wrong idea and think there's something bad about exercising when you have arthritis pain. I try to encourage all my patients to exercise b/c it's wonderful all around for most things.

    Thanks for all you do in spreading the great word about exercise and its manifold benefits.
  • DONNA558
    I pretend I am a TickleMe Plant - It is the only house plant that moves when you Tickle It
    The leaves fold and the branches bend down when Tickled! Search TickleMe Plant to grow your own. If you pose like one, you may find it is a wonderful and relaxing therapy as well and itmay ease some of the pain.
  • KELLEYPAUL
    Joining this message board I can get some tips from all of you on what I can do. I have bad knee's. I have already had MRIs, taken steriods and waiting on a followup with my orthopedic doc. Because nothing has helped. Before the injury I was in a bootcamp class 3 days a week. Now I have a knot on the back side of my knee and a bruised feeling on the outer side of the knee. Not sure what will have to be done, since the MRIs only showed inflammation. None of the remedies have worked and I'm tired of not being able to workout, much less walk around for more than a couple hours. I am needing to workout, but everything seems to revolve around working the knees. Any suggestions? (also have limted use of my left wrist, so pressure on the wrist has to be modified at times). Signed...falling apart at 40.

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.