It may seem antithetical, but exercise is vital in the treatment of arthritis. In fact, lack of exercise can actually cause your joints to be even more stiff and painful. Jacqueline Mayes, MPT, of Blue Ridge Physical Therapy, often repeats the phrase “motion is lotion” to get this point across to patients.
“We need to stay active and moving our joints to keep them lubricated naturally,” she explains. “Often when patients hurt, instinctively they want to rest but in doing so they become more stiff and sore.”
Exercise also strengthens the muscles around your joints and is great for your overall health.
Now that you know the importance of exercise, here are some tidbits to consider before you jump right into an exercise regimen.
Make it a combo
There are three basic types of exercises: aerobic, muscle-building, and flexibility. Ideally, your routine will include a combination of exercises from all three, suited to your specific needs and abilities.
Fortunately, there are a lot of joint-friendly options for aerobic exercise. Walking, swimming, and biking are wonderful forms of low-impact activities for arthritic joints with the added benefits of improved cardiovascular health and weight management. Try to complete 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week. And one of the most important bits of advice: “Don’t forget to wear supportive shoes,” says Jennifer Wilkins, PT.
Muscle-building exercises are also an important part of your exercise routine, and the reason is simple: strong muscles support your joints. There are a lot of considerations when it comes to strength-training, such as focusing proper form to avoid injury, giving your muscles adequate time to recover, and picking the most appropriate techniques for specific muscle groups. If you’re new to strength training, seeking the advice of a qualified trainer, physical therapist, or doctor is recommended.
Finally, flexibility exercises are integral for maintaining a full range of motion in your joints. The mind-body practices of Tai Chi and certain Yoga styles are safe and enjoyable ways to stretch and put your body through a wide range of motions. Even simple exercises such as arm circles, hip and knee bends, and rolling your shoulders are effective ways to improve flexibility. These exercises should be done daily.
Listen to your body
If sharp pain or significant discomfort occurs while you performing an exercise, stop doing it. Never force a movement.
Also, when you’re experiencing a flare up, it’s OK to reduce the time and intensity of your exercise. Focus instead on simple range-of-motion exercises and then resume more intense activities when it calms down. If there are certain times of the day when you are least likely to experience inflammation and pain, schedule your workouts accordingly.
When starting out, be thoughtful about what your body can handle. Creating an exercise routine to last is truly a marathon, not a sprint. You will know when your body is ready for increased activity.
Warm up and cool down
Prior to exercising, apply heat to trouble spots. The heat should be comfortable, not searing. The goal here is to increase the temperature of the muscles and joints to improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and lessen the likelihood of injury.
After exercising, be sure to stretch. A cold pack can assist with inflamed joints, reducing swelling and pain.
Adopting certain lifestyle changes can boost the benefits of an exercise routine. These types of lifestyle changes can help you feel better and, basically, when you feel better, you’re more likely to exercise.
Choosing to have an active lifestyle by engaging in everyday activities — such as mowing the lawn, weeding a flowerbed, or walking your dog — provides fitness-forward opportunities.
Your diet can also make a significant difference. Avoiding specific types of foods have shown to reduce arthritis inflammation. Those include added sugar, gluten-containing foods, highly processed foods, red meat, and foods high in salt.
If you’re overweight, arthritis can be harder to manage. We understand losing weight can feel like an impossible challenge, especially when your joints are stiff and sore. But losing even a few pounds can make a huge difference in the way you feel.
If it is necessary to be sedentary for long periods of time — perhaps you have a desk job, for example — make a habit of standing up to walk and stretch every 20 to 30 minutes. Adjust your body position frequently, optimize your workspace ergonomics, and use ergonomic tools to minimize strain on your joints.
Consult a doctor or physical therapist
Depending upon your arthritis diagnosis, treatments can vary, so creating a plan with your doctor is imperative to the success of any exercise regimen.