There are multiple forms of arthritis that can affect very different people. The two most common examples of the condition are osteoarthritis, generally considered a “wear and tear” condition, and rheumatoid arthritis, which is an immunodeficiency condition that affects the joints. These conditions are different but both cause similar joint pain that can be frustrating, if not debilitating.
Several studies have shown that staying active can actually benefit an individual with arthritis. It increases the strength and mobility in the muscles around the affected joints and can relieve pressure and pain.
Arthritis can also cause fatigue and even depression. When the pain and emotional effects are at their worst, it can feel impossible to try to add physical activity to the day. However, even the smallest effort to increase activity can help patients dealing with arthritis pain.
Common pain conditions caused by arthritis
The primary pain caused by arthritis is inflammation of the joints that can make it difficult and uncomfortable to move them. In the case of osteoarthritis, this is caused by the deterioration of the protective tissues between the bones in the joint. As this wears out, the bones begin to rub together causing pain and inflammation. Some people with osteoarthritis can even hear a grating or rubbing sound when they move. Rheumatoid arthritis is an immunodeficiency disease that causes the body to attack its own healthy tissues in the joints and cause inflammation and pain. Both of these conditions can also lead to additional pain such as hip pain and knee pain. It can cause issues with the range of motion, swelling, and stiffness especially in the morning.
There are no cures for either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, but the pain can be managed. Patients dealing with their effects may be able to lead more normal lives with minimal pain or distractions. As we mentioned, exercise may be one of the missing puzzle pieces for some people with these conditions.
Benefits of exercise for arthritis patients
While it may seem as though additional physical exercise would exacerbate the pain in the joints the opposite can actually be true. Not only will it help strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joints, exercise can also help you maintain bone strength, increase energy throughout the day, allow for better sleep, reduce weight and take stress off painful joints, and improve your overall well-being.
In fact, studies have demonstrated that a lack of exercise actually increases the stiffness and pain in joints associated with arthritis. The most important benefit of exercise is keeping the muscles and tissues around the joints strong. Without exercise, the additional stress is centered on the already painful joints.
Suggestions for safe exercise
There are several gentle and low-impact exercises that can benefit someone dealing with arthritis pain. These include:
- Yoga: This Indian meditative practice has become quite popular in the United States over the last few decades. It emphasizes gentle stretching of the muscles and increased flexibility through a series of poses that can be adapted to any ability level. As your flexibility increases and pain decreases, more complex poses can be learned so the overall benefits can be steadily increased. Yoga is great when done in groups, especially if you are a beginner, but it can also be easily adapted and done in your home. Besides the physical benefits of yoga, the meditative aspects help restore peace of mind and can help with depression and anxiety which is sometimes present in patients with arthritis.
- Walking: A walk around the block is a great start for someone who doesn’t have much experience with exercise. Walking, like yoga, can start out slow and small and increase over time as the muscles begin to gain strength and stamina. Wear comfortable walking shoes and start out by taking a short walk around your block. Gently increase the distance and speed as you are willing and able. This is especially good for arthritis pain that affects the knees and hips. Walking is also often more fun with a buddy or you can plug into favorite music on your phone and relax as you go. Another benefit of walking is getting outside in nature.
- Water exercises: The body is buoyant in water, which helps to take pressure off already painful joints while still strengthening the muscles and other tissues. The resistance of the water also increases the way the muscles respond to exercise. Swimming, water aerobics, and other water workouts can be a great way to enjoy a low-pain workout. If you have your own pool you can simply swim laps. Otherwise, a community pool or joining a gym can give you access to a pool. Many community centers offer water aerobics classes as well.
- Tai chi: Much like yoga, this Chinese martial art is meditative and focuses on motion. Unlike some of the other martial arts, such as karate and judo, tai chi focuses on the breath and fluid motion to help center the mind and body. The stretches are sometimes more gentle than typical yoga poses so it can be a good alternative for individuals who find that stretching increases stress on their joints. Classes should be available at your local community center.
- Weight training: While you may never become a muscle bound weight lifter, weight training is actually very good for joints affected by arthritis. Just like with walking, weight training can start very slowly and then increase as your muscles respond to the exercise. The most important thing to consider with weight training is safety. Don’t try to lift more than you are able to and it is advised to work with a partner to help ensure that you are lifting correctly. However, you may start by using small dumbbells in your own home to learn curls. This is especially good for people who have arthritis pain in their hands, wrists, or elbows.
- Bicycling: The gentle, rounded motion of pedaling is very gentle on the knees. Biking in your neighborhood or on an easy trail can be a fun way to strengthen the muscles in the knees and decrease arthritis pain. You can also get the same benefits if you choose to use a stationary bike, either upright or recumbent, in your home or at a local gym.
Before starting an exercise program discuss your condition with your doctor. They can help you determine which exercise routine can provide the most benefit for your specific needs.
What kind of exercises has helped you manage your arthritis pain?
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