Physically active individuals are healthier, happier and live longer than those who are inactive and unfit. This is especially true for people with arthritis. Yet, arthritis is one of the most common reasons people give for limiting physical activity and recreational pursuits. Inactivity, in addition to arthritis-related problems, can result in a variety of health risks, including Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
In addition, decreased pain tolerance, weak muscles, stiff joints and poor balance common to many forms of arthritis can be made worse by inactivity. For many older people with arthritis, joint and muscle changes due to aging can make matters worse. Therefore, for the person with arthritis, the right kind of exercise is very important.
Who Should Exercise?
Everyone! Research shows that people with many forms of arthritis can participate safely in appropriate, regular exercise. Long-term studies have shown that even people with inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can benefit from moderate intensity, weight-bearing activity. Other benefits include less bone loss and small-joint damage associated with RA and no increase in pain or disease activity.
For individuals with osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee or elsewhere, research suggests programs that combine strengthening and aerobic exercise, reduce symptoms, improve joint motion and function, enhance coordination and balance, and control body weight. Regular moderate exercise even has been found to improve cartilage health in individuals at risk for developing knee OA. Having weak thigh muscles (quadriceps) is a risk factor for both developing OA in the knee and having greater disability.
When to Exercise
Finding the right time of day to exercise will help you establish a routine and obtain the greatest benefits. For those with a lot of morning stiffness, gentle ROM exercises may be helpful, but getting to a fitness class may be too difficult. If fatigue is a problem, breaking up the exercise program into several short intervals during the day may be more manageable. Trouble sleeping at night? Avoid doing aerobic exercises within two hours of bedtime; however, stretching and relaxation exercises may help with sleep.
It is important to be aware of any changes in your arthritis symptoms such as periods of more joint pain and stiffness. You may need more rest and less exercise during these times.
How to Get Started
Starting a regular exercise program can be very challenging. Understanding the benefits of exercise for people with arthritis and having the support and guidance from your rheumatologist will help. Physical and occupational therapists can suggest exercises that are safe and customized to your specific needs, teach you how to monitor your body’s response to exercise, and modify your exercise routine as needed.
Make an exercise plan or contract including when, how often and for how long you will exercise. Other tips to help you stay motivated are:
Set realistic short and long term goals, and reward yourself when you have achieved them
Exercise with a friend or family member
Keep an exercise log or chart your progress on a calendar
Identify problems or obstacles that are likely to get in the way of your exercise program and plan ahead how you will deal with them
Choose activities that are convenient, relatively inexpensive and fun!
Discuss your exercise program and any concerns you have with your rheumatologist and/or other arthritis health professionals on a regular basis. With their support and guidance, you will be able to build regular physical activity and exercise into your daily routine and reap the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle.