Exercising with Arthritis: Getting Started

If you live with the daily pain and discomfort of arthritis, you're not the only one: In the United States, an estimated 54 million adults have been diagnosed with arthritis. If you're working with a doctor, it's likely that he or she 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. But 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.<pagebreak>

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.<pagebreak>
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!