Almost a quarter of the American population suffers from osteoarthritis, a condition in which chronic wear and tear of cartilage produces stiff, swollen, painful joints. Arthritis gets worse over time, and without intervention can become severe enough to limit activities or immobilize you completely. For some, the recommended treatment for their arthritis pain includes medications,
PRP (regenerative medicine ), or surgery, but increasing your physical activity can be the ticket to improving your pain.
A carefully devised, customized exercise regimen is your best defense against the destructive effects of arthritis. The idea of subjecting yourself to physical strain may not seem appealing when you’re in pain, but it is well worth the initial push. You don’t have to register for a triathlon to get the benefits of exercise; any effort to become more physical, however gradual, will help reduce arthritis symptoms and improve overall health.
How does exercise help with arthritis pain?
Exercise provides holistic benefits, meaning that its effects are directed not only at the aggravating symptom, but toward the well-being of the person as a whole. When you exercise to improve arthritis, you may find that other aspects of your health enjoy the fruits of your labors as well.
Some of the benefits of a dedicated exercise routine include:
- Weight loss
- Increased balance and coordination
- Fortification of bone density
- Improved core strength and flexibility
- Enhanced sleep and circadian rhythm
- Reduced threat of physical injuries
- Decrease in anxiety and depression.
- Significant reduction in joint pain and stiffness
Maintaining muscle strength and joint flexibility is crucial in the fight against arthritis’ debilitating effects. While joint pain may make it tempting to be sedentary, immobility causes a significant loss of muscle tone, a key contributor to joint instability and inflammation. By improving the supportive structures that hold joints in place, you can greatly reduce both your pain and your odds of having to treat a bigger injury later.
What are the best exercises to try?
Muscle tone is a cornerstone of osteopathic health. Begin by using resistance training exercises two to three days per week, alternating muscle groups as you go. Free weights, weight training machines, and resistance stretch bands are the best tools for building muscle mass and strength. Not only will they improve durability, but weight resistance exercises also contribute to bone density and help avert osteoporosis as you age.
Focus on both core and extremity muscle groups to provide overall conditioning, moving through different joint systems from head to toe. Don’t forget to include spinal work as well; cervical and lumbar joint deterioration can be as debilitating as the knees and shoulders, if not worse. A word of caution; begin lightly when first tackling spinal muscle exercises, as injuries to these areas can be extremely serious. Consult your doctor or physical therapist to discuss a plan beforehand.
Range of motion
As their name suggests, range-of-motion (ROM) exercises aim at improving the flexibility and fluidity of joints through motion. There are two types of ROM exercises: passive and active. Passive exercises are performed by another person, such as a physical therapist, by guiding a specific limb through a series of movements without the help of surrounding muscles. These exercises are important for those with recent joint surgeries or severe joint stiffness to begin the process of retrieving joint mobility without risking injury. Active ROM exercises are performed by you, by engaging the muscles surrounding your joints. Examples include shoulder rolls, arm rotations, ankle rotations, and hip abductions.
ROM exercises can decrease joint stiffness and swelling, and work best in tandem with muscle-training efforts. Swimming, stationary cycling, and Tai Chi are excellent activities to provide this benefit.
Aerobic exercise aims at sustaining elevated heart rates for a therapeutic amount of time. While these types of exercise do not affect joints directly, they provide indirect benefits in the form of improved vascular efficiency, better tissue oxygenation, and a big bump in mood and energy levels. Aerobic activities tend to overlap with those that work muscle groups and joints, making them ideal for your holistic health goals. Walking, jogging, biking, swimming, and water aerobics are just a small sampling of the many ways to incorporate aerobic benefits into your anti-arthritic regimen.
Start with your doctor
Any exercise routine may incur some health risks. The last thing that you want from your efforts is an injury that propels you “out of the pot and into the fire”. Before trying something new, talk to your orthopedic clinician about creating an exercise routine that is safe and effective for your particular circumstances. He/she may recommend certified programs or send a referral for a physical therapist to help guide you safely into a new or intensive routine.
Protecting your joints
Keep these tips in mind as you advance in your exercises:
Consider the impact – Low-impact activities that don’t grind your joints are your best option. Using the Juvent platform, available at OrthoNOW®, just three days a week has been shown to help improve blood flow, ease joint, knee and back pain, and increase stability.
Water activities, elliptical machines, stationary cycling, orthotic shoes or inserts – these are a few of the ways to work your muscles without overdoing it within the joints. Base your judgement on how your joints respond to exercise. Those with minimal disease may still be able to jog, while those with advanced arthritis should avoid high-impact activities altogether. Let your doctor help you determine what range of activities are safest for you.
Know the indications for heat vs. ice – Heat packs and cold packs both have their place in minimizing injuries and pain. Heat is used to reduce muscle tension and improve blood flow to an area. Ice reduces inflammation. Use heat before exercising to improve flexibility, and ice afterward to help avoid post-workout pain and swelling.
Don’t get in a hurry – Allow yourself and your joints time to adjust to new workout routines. Don’t overdo it in the beginning, and start by gradually introducing new movements, increased weights, and endurance efforts. Stretching and ROM exercises should always precede anything more rigorous to prevent injuries.
Find local support
Arthritis treatment is a central theme in the health and exercise industries. Many gyms create special programs aimed directly at club members with arthritic concerns. You can also look for organized activities within your community that get arthritis sufferers out for group hikes, bike rides, water sports, and more. Contact the Arthritis Foundation for any special programs they may be hosting in your area.
Our OrthoNOW Rehabilitation Center provides a private outpatient clinical setting for physical and occupational therapy where quality of care and patient satisfaction are our primary goals. Call (305) 537-7275 to make an appointment.