Arthritis and Exercise

I was surprised when I started writing this article to find out that there are over a hundred different types of arthritis that exist. In Canada the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, affects 1 in 10 people. Other forms of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, childhood arthritis, psoriatic arthritis among others.

While arthritis generally hampers a person’s ability to move, exercise is generally beneficial for arthritis. It can help reduce pain and stiffness, help develop the required muscle and surrounding tissue that is crucial for maintaining support and also help with maintaining coordination and balance so a person can continue their day to day activities.

When planning how to integrate exercise as a method of arthritis management it is important to look at how different exercise will positively impact one’s range-of-motion (ROM), strength as well as aerobic capacity. The American College of Rheumatology recommends strength training 2-3 times a week and 150 minutes of moderately intensive cardiovascular exercise, similar to the recommendations for the general population. Getting exercise when you have arthritis though can be a very difficult task. Arthritis sufferers may have a very limited range of motion and may also have limited amount of energy. These things can also vary greatly day to day. Too much exercise can make joint function worse and high impact activities can also be damaging and dangerous.

The number of physical activities that people with severe arthritis can participate in is also limited. People that are active before getting arthritis may find themselves having to switch to different activities. Running and playing sports that require running and quick changes in direction can be extremely painful and dangerous for people that have ankle, knee or hip pain. Some activities that are less hard on the joints include cycling, swimming and other water fitness classes as well as yoga and tai chi. Instead of exercising for an hour, people with arthritis may also have to break their exercise up into 10 minute chunks so they don’t feel too fatigued. Because of these restrictions it can often be hard for a person with arthritis to find something that they like to do and to get the social benefits of exercise.

Another important aspect of exercise for arthritis sufferers is ROM. ROM is performed 5-10 times daily and can be as simple as rotating one’s wrists or shoulders around. Performing ROM exercises in the evening can help reduce joint stiffness the next morning and performing ROM exercises in the morning can help thin fluid and reduce stiffness.

If you are in pain when you exercise, as is the case for many people with arthritis, some of the tips below may help:

  • Be conscious of both your body when you exercise as well as the surrounding area. Having correct posture, good footwear and exercising on even and flat surfaces can all be factors in helping to prevent pain especially if your arthritis affects your lower hips, knees, and/or ankles.
  • Make sure not to take excess pain medication prior to exercise as this can prevent you from being aware when you have over exercise (1) .
  • Consider heating joints 20 minutes prior to exercise as well as icing joints for 20 minutes after exercise. This can respectively relax joints and reduce swelling which can help manage pain (2) .

Remember to always check with your doctor before starting an exercise regime and to find out what treatment is most appropriate for you.



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