How Exercise Fights Arthritis

If arthritis makes moving hurt, then why would you want to exercise? It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise helps reduce arthritis pain. Not moving leads to stiff joints and weak muscles, which makes arthritis worse rather than better.

Exercise has other benefits too. Regular workouts can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, so there's less pressure on your joints. You'll also have more energy and better sleep-common goals for many people with arthritis.

This doesn't mean that you should get up from the computer right now and go for a run. Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen. Low-impact exercises are generally easier and lead to less post-workout pain. Swimming and water aerobics are excellent choices because water reduces the stress of gravity on your joints. If you can't get to a pool, try the sidewalk. Walking at a comfortable pace provides a great low-impact workout and can be done nearly anywhere.

The Arthritis Foundation recommends three types of exercise for people with arthritis :

  • 1. Flexibility ("range-of-motion") exercises. Stretching your neck, back, arms and legs reduces risk of injury and helps you prepare for more vigorous workouts. Gradually work your way up to 15 minutes of continuous stretching each day. (If you enjoy exercising in groups, check your local gym for a beginner yoga class.)
  • 2. Strength-building moves. Extra muscle helps support your joints, which may help reduce pain. The key to building muscle is resistance exercises, which involve pushing, pulling or bending your joints against a force. Even walking (pushing against gravity) builds muscles. As you get stronger, increase the resistance by adding hand weights or resistance bands. Unlike your daily flexibility exercises, try to do resistance exercises two or three times a week. Leave a day in between each session to give your body a chance to recover.
  • 3. Aerobic exercises. Nearly anything that gets your heart rate up and makes you breathe a little harder counts as aerobic exercise. This kind of workout will strengthen your heart, help you burn calories to lose weight, and probably improve your sleep, too. Doctors recommend a half to a full hour of aerobic exercise, three to five days a week. You can also break up the exercises to fit your schedule and still get similar benefits. Also, talk to your physician before starting aerobic exercises.

So, yes, it may be painful to move your body, but physical activity is also the path toward less pain. Ask your doctor for exercise recommendations; a healthcare professional such as a physical therapist can set up a plan for you, and some fitness facilities have arthritis programs. One last point about exercising safely with arthritis: Start slowly and gradually increase the intensity. You'll probably find you have less pain by exercising in short bursts instead of trying one long workout.

Reviewed by Vikas Garg, M.D., MSA

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