Managing Arthritis with Exercise

Does this sound familiar? "My joints are achy, I feel stiff all the time, and it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning." If there were ever a good excuse not to exercise – if there were ever a defensible time to throw in the towel – this would be it, right? Wrong!

In fact, when arthritis is a problem is precisely the time for you to get up and get moving. Exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness and increases flexibility, muscle strength, cardiac fitness, and endurance. It also helps with weight reduction and contributes to an improved sense of well-being. Taking the day (or week, month, or year) off will only make things worse for tomorrow.

So where do you go from here? How do you begin a program that helps, not hurts?

Three types of exercise are best for dealing with arthritis. Create a workout program that includes a balance of:
  • Range-of-motion exercises (e.g., stretching) for normal joint movement, relieving stiffness, and maintaining or increasing flexibility. Include at least every other day.
  • Strengthening exercises (e.g., weight training, resistance exercises, nautilus, body weight exercises) for keeping or increasing muscle strength, and supporting and protecting joints affected by arthritis. Include every other day unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints.
  • Aerobic or Endurance exercises (e.g., bicycle riding, walking, swimming, cardio gym machines) for improving cardiovascular fitness, controlling weight, improving overall function, and relieving pressure on and inflammation in your joints. Include 20 - 30 minutes, 3x per week unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints.
Where To Start 
Begin with easy, range-of-motion exercises and low-impact aerobics. As you become more comfortable with a low-level program, it is possible to progress to more advanced exercises. For example, you might start with water exercise (easiest on the joints) and progress to walking and/or biking or sports. Check with your doctor to learn which sports and exercises would be safe for you to try.

Things to remember while exercising:
  • Move your joints daily to prevent stiffness and loss of joint movement.
  • Exercises should be done on a regular basis. You should try to do them on good days and bad days, although you may have to modify the program if you are having more pain than usual.
  • An inflamed joint should only be moved gently through its range of motion.
  • It is important to listen to your body and not overdo it. If an exercise hurts, stop! Pain (other than normal arthritis discomfort) is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you get tired, rest! Wait a few minutes, then continue when you are ready.
  • Always begin a session with some slow warm-up exercises to reduce stress on the joints.
  • You should attempt to achieve a full range of motion by moving until you feel a slight stretch. Do not force the motion, going only as far as you feel comfortable.
  • Move at your own pace, performing exercises in a slow and steady motion.
  • Strength training can be done with small free weights, exercise machines, isometrics, elastic bands, and resistive water exercises. Correct positioning is critical, because if done incorrectly, strengthening exercises can cause muscle tears, more pain, and more joint swelling.
  • Most experts agree that if exercise causes pain that lasts for more than 1 hour, it is too much.
Other ways to protect your joints:
  • Avoid keeping your joints in the same position for long periods of time. To reduce stiffness, avoid prolonged sitting and get up and walk around every hour or so.
  • The strongest or largest joints and muscles should be used instead of the weakest ones, and weight should be distributed over several joints. For example, push open a heavy door with the side of your arm, not with your hand and outstretched arm. Carry a heavy bag or purse over your shoulder instead of holding it by the fingers.
  • Maintain good posture and body mechanics, keeping joints in their most stable and functional position. Bad posture can lead to possible deformities and increased pain.
  • Use a straight-back chair with a firm seat when sitting. When rising from a chair, use the muscles of the legs while also pushing off of the arms of the chair with palms or forearms (not fingers).