Exercising with Arthritis
The word “arthritis” means joint inflammation, and the associated pain, stiffness and swelling makes it tempting to become a couch potato. While sitting quietly relieves the short-term pain and discomfort, in the long run it can lead to significant muscle loss and weight gain. In fact, an exercise program tailored to your specific needs can actually relieve pain and fatigue, improve joint movement and muscle strength, and help you control your weight.
Three types of exercise
A balanced exercise program includes three types of exercises:
- Range-of-motion exercises (also called stretching or flexibility exercises) help maintain normal joint function by steadily increasing the “range” or distance the joint can travel. To relieve pain, there is a tendency to hold the arthritic joint in a bent position and move it as little as possible; however, this can lead to permanent joint stiffness. By regularly bending and straightening the joint as far as it can comfortably go – and then stretching it just a bit further – you can help your joint retain normal or near-normal range of motion, which will make a big difference as you go about your everyday activities. Doing range-of-motion exercises is a great way to warm up your muscles before doing any type of physical activity.
- Strengthening exercises help keep weak joints stable and comfortable, and protect them against further damage. Isometric and isotonic exercises, when performed correctly, can maintain or increase muscle tissue by supporting joints without aggravating them. In isometrics, you alternately flex and relax various muscle groups; isometrics have the added appeal of not requiring any joint movement. Isotonics are more intensive, using resistance in the form of small weights and stretch bands as you gradually increase your repetitions. Exercising in the water takes some of the pressure off painful joints.
- Endurance exercises are based on aerobic exercise, which conditions the heart and lungs to use oxygen more efficiently and builds stronger muscles. In tandem with a healthy diet, aerobic exercise also plays an important role in keeping your weight under control, which reduces pressure on affected joints.
Begin an aerobic exercise program slowly, doing no more than 15 minutes at least three times a week. Over time, you can build up to 30 minutes daily. Remember to include 5-10 minutes of warm-up and cool-down exercises during every exercise session, and monitor your heart to keep it in your target heart rate zone. Good examples of aerobic exercise include walking, swimming, raking leaves, biking and playing golf.
Your doctor or a physical therapist can help you develop an exercise program that meets your physical needs. However, you should check with him or her and adjust your program if you notice any of these symptoms: unusual fatigue, increased pain and/or weakness, joint swelling, decreased range of motion, or pain that lasts longer than two hours after exercising. (Source: WebMD in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic.)