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Pain, not time, is the leading barrier to exercise among people with osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis. Add to that a fear that exercise will make the arthritis worse. But regular moderate activity significantly reduces pain from osteoarthritis—and may help prevent an existing condition from becoming worse. It seems counterintuitive: After all, osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage that cushions joints, so wouldn’t using your joints more increase your risk of developing arthritis or make an existing case worse? The opposite is true, studies show. “Exercise strengthens the muscles surrounding the joints, and stronger muscles absorb more of the forces put on the joints,” explains Jennifer Hootman, Ph.D., a certified athletic trainer and epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Arthritis Program. Exercise helps prevent weight gain, and being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for osteoarthritis.
Exercise also helps to circulate the fluid that provides nutrients and lubrication to the joints, which helps keep them healthy. Indeed, studies have shown that runners are no more likely to develop arthritis than non-runners. If you already have osteoarthritis, it’s especially important to be physically active, because you can delay some of the common consequences of the disease, such as a loss of function and range of motion in your joints. Exercise improves the mobility and function of your joints, reduces disability and has been associated with better mental health and overall physical health. Here’s how to start if your joints already hurt:
1. Choose a low-impact activity like walking, cycling, swimming, water aerobics, dancing or high-intensity yoga. Look for exercise programs specially designed for people with osteoarthritis, such as those by the Arthritis Foundation. You may also want to explore one of these five CDC-recommended arthritis exercise programs, or visit the CDC’s physical activity and arthritis page for more tips .
2. Start slowly. “If you do too much, you’ll get sore and then stop altogether,” says Hootman. She recommends beginning with five minutes a couple of times per week. Each week, slowly increase the time, and then increase the frequency. If you choose one of the CDC-recommended exercise programs, the instructors will be trained to help people progress at different paces. You might have more soreness for a couple of weeks, but that typically subsides and you will experience less pain if you keep it up.
3. Aim to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise each week (that works out to 30 minutes five days a week). You can break it up into 15-minute chunks if that’s easier. 4. Strength train twice a week by lifting weights, doing calisthenics such as crunches and push-ups, or even heavy yard work. Many programs include both aerobic and strengthening exercises. Building up muscles can protect your joints. Work on stretching, which is important for preventing your joints from stiffening, and balance training, with exercises like tai chi and yoga, to help prevent falls.
5. If your pain has improved, you can increase the intensity of your exercise. Some people with arthritis are able to do higher-impact sports like jogging, tennis and racquetball. The most important ingredient in your new exercise program: patience. Give it time. You won’t feel better right away. But if you’re careful and persistent, you may start to feel better in just a few weeks.
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