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The pain, stiffness, and restricted movement that accompany arthritis may seem like a good reason to curl up in bed, but exercise is beneficial in mild-to-moderate arthritis. Arthritis exercise benefits include:
- Healing. Exercise increases blood circulation and oxygenation within joint tissue, promoting repair.
- Lower risk of complications. Exercise helps protect against complications that are associated with arthritis, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- Stronger bones and muscles. Exercise boosts bone density and reduces fracture risk. It also tones and builds muscle, helping preserve mobility and function.
- Better mood. When you exercise, your body produces more endorphins: the body’s natural opioid analgesics, which improve your mental health, mood, and energy levels.
- Enhanced coordination, range of motion, and balance, which combine to reduce your risk of falls and fractures.
- Weight management. Physical activity can help overweight individuals shed excess pounds. This reduces arthritis symptoms, slows progression, and can aid your recovery after joint replacement.
Types of Arthritis Exercises
The American College of Rheumatology recommends flexibility, strengthening, aerobic, and body awareness exercises.
Also known as range-of-motion exercises, these improve your mobility and reduce joint stiffness. Stretch as far as is comfortable—over time you will be able to increase the stretch. Stop if there is pain. Perform stretches three to five days each week for five to 10 repetitions, holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Stretching exercises can be incorporated into a physical therapy program or recreational exercise, such as tai chi and yoga.
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Strengthening exercises use the resistance of your own body weight, or resistance from weights, exercise bands, or a multigym. This more strenuous form of exercise can help prevent muscle atrophy (shrinkage), which is common with age and arthritis, and strengthen muscles. The result: improved muscle tone, joint stability, and function, as well as stronger bones and perhaps less inflammation.
The recommendation is to perform one set of eight to 10 exercises for the major muscle groups at least two or three times each week. If this is a struggle, reduce the resistance or weight and perform 10 to 15 repetitions. Over time, increase the resistance, weight, or number of repetitions to advance your improvements.
Aerobic exercise or cardiorespiratory conditioning gets your heart racing. This in turn improves heart health, lung capacity, muscle health, metabolism, mental health, sleep, and general health. Try walking, aquatic exercise, bicycling, aerobic dance, or exercising on equipment such as stationary bikes, treadmills, or elliptical trainers.
It is recommended that you engage in moderate-intensity aerobic activity for 150 minutes each week, split into several sessions to fit with your schedule and fitness level. If you’re finding it difficult to reach this target, an activity tracker might help. The aim is to exercise to a level where you can still speak normally (the “talk test”) without feeling out of breath or overheated.
Body Awareness Exercises
Getting Started with Exercise
If you have pre-existing medical problems, have recently had surgery (including joint surgery or replacement), or have significant arthritis, ask your doctor or physical therapist for advice on what types of exercise are a good choice for you and which specific exercises to avoid.
At the local gym or YMCA, look for special classes for people with arthritis or back pain, as these will be gentler and may include varying levels of activity. As a general rule, if it hurts, stop: You are either doing the exercise incorrectly or doing an exercise that is not suitable for you.
- Water exercise is a relatively safe way to get started, and includes swimming, water walking, and aerobic aquatic programs. These are low-impact options, and minimize the risk of injury.
- Social exercise. If you’re struggling with motivation, try a social form of exercise—the Arthritis Foundation recommends sports such as bocce ball, golf, and shuffleboard.
- Walking is a great form of exercise, and can be done on a treadmill or outdoors. Outdoor walking has the added advantage of providing fresh air and a natural dose of vitamin D. Turn it into a social event by walking with a friend or in a group. Be wary of uneven surfaces and slippery or steep slopes, and consider using a walking stick or poles to improve stability. Gentle walking is considered mild aerobic exercise and it may not raise your heart rate much, but walking faster, on an incline, or while wearing wrist or ankle weights will increase the intensity of the exercise.
For more information about how exercise can benefit arthritis, check out “Arthritis Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment” at www.UniversityHealthNews.com.