Arthritis and exercise
Regular gentle exercise helps keep your joints flexible, maintains muscle strength and improves your endurance. It even improves your ability to perform basic tasks such as writing. It’s also good for your mental health, improving your self-esteem and giving you a sense of accomplishment and general well being.
But the most important reason for exercising is that people who do so are simply healthier and live longer than those who have a sedentary lifestyle. This is as true for people with arthritis as it is for anyone else.
Many people cite arthritis as a reason for limiting their physical activity, because they fear pain, stiffness and fatigue. But arthritis sufferers who exercise regularly are stronger, fitter and more flexible than those who don’t.
Exercise can be divided into three sorts, each of which will play a role in reducing the pain and disability associated with arthritis.
Stretching or toning exercises:
These are low intensity exercises that should be performed daily to maintain or improve the body’s range of motion. They form the foundation of most therapeutic exercise programmes and also play an important role in recreational or fitness exercise. Building flexibility improves function and reduces the likelihood of injury. Try t’ai chi, yoga or calisthenics.
These exercises are more vigorous and will build strength and endurance when they’re done every other day. They require more from the muscles by requiring them to lift the weight of the limbs or trunk against gravity, or by working against increased resistance using elastic bands or weights. Within a short time the muscles adapt to the extra load. Try a Pilates programme, playing golf or walking.
Cardiorespiratory or aerobic conditioning:
This involves using the large muscles of the body in repetitive, rhythmic movements, which results in improved heart, lung and muscle function. It’s also good for controlling your weight and has been shown to improve mood by promoting the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” hormones.
Daily activities such as raking leaves, mowing the lawn or walking the dog are also good aerobic exercise. Remember: exercise causing pain and discomfort is a warning that you are exercising too vigorously or that you are performing the wrong type of exercise.
Research has shown that many people with arthritis can safely take part in a variety of activities that boost their aerobic fitness. Low impact exercises such as water aerobics and swimming are particularly good.
You should start gently (10 minutes 3 times per week), building up slowly as your endurance improves
The safest intensity for aerobic exercise is moderate exertion, which means you should still be able to speak normally and not be out of breath. Try for at least half an hour of exercise three times a week. If you can’t manage 30 minutes of continual activity, try doing three 10-minute bouts throughout the day.
Diet and supplements
There are several foods and supplements that are highly effective in helping to reduce the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis and exercise. Increasing your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, and decreasing your intake of saturated fats and processed foods can have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body, which can help ease arthritis symptoms. Allergies to some foods can aggravate arthritic symptoms, so if you suffer from arthritis, it is worth visiting a doctor to arrange an allergy test to determine if certain foods are making your condition worse.
The research into natural supplements that can treat arthritis and exercise is extensive. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and can be helpful in reducing arthritic symptoms. There are a large number of omega-3 supplements available. Krill oil in particular has become a popular omega-3 supplement that is increasingly used for helping reduce arthritic pain and symptoms, as it is more easily absorbed by the human body than some other forms.
Other popular supplements for reducing arthritic symptoms for those wishing to continue exercising include:
- Chondroitin sulfate
- Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)
- Vitamin D3 may reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis
Simple exercises to try at home
Hamstring stretch: Lie flat on your back and slowly raise one knee to your chest. Hold 8-10 seconds, then return to starting position. Repeat 3-6 times. Do the same on the opposite side.
Neck stretch: Sit up straight in a chair with good back support. Tilt your head gradually towards one shoulder until you feel the stretch on the opposite side. Hold for five seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Resistance band pull: Wrap a resistance band around a sturdy object in front of you. Hold the ends of the band in each hand with your arms straight out in front, palms facing each other. Pull the band toward you, bending your elbows, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Slowly return to starting position and repeat 10-15 times.
Step-up: For this you need the bottom step of a flight of stairs, or a stepping block. Step up with your right foot and raise your left knee slowly. Return to start position. Repeat 10-15 times (increase the number of repetitions gradually), then change to the left side.
Back stretch: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the bed or floor. Tighten your stomach muscles to flatten your lower back against the bed.
Why water works
Swimming, water aerobics and other exercises in warm water are particularly beneficial. Here’s why:
- The buoyancy and soothing effect of warm water make it ideal for relieving arthritis pain and stiffness;
- Immersion in warm water raises your body temperature and increases circulation by causing your blood vessels to dilate (relax);
- The buoyancy of water allows gentle non-weight bearing stretching of joints and muscles;
- Water provides enough resistance to build muscle strength, but is unlikely to cause muscle strain if done properly;
- Sitting in a spa bath adds massage to the benefits. Move around until the jet nozzles direct a mixture of air and water to the areas of your body where the muscles feel tight;
- You can do fairly vigorous exercises in a spa bath, but remember that the temperature should be lower than if you’re doing very gentle movements;
- If you own a spa bath, follow the maintenance and safety instructions to the letter;
- Put non-slip surfacing on the areas around the spa bath. The last thing you need is a fall. If you need help getting into the bath, put up handrails;
- If you feel lightheaded or nauseous, get out immediately, sit down away from the spa bath and call for help;
- Avoid sitting in a spa bath for long periods if you have medical conditions such as lung or heart disease, circulatory problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, skin irritations or any other serious illness;
- If joint swelling, stiffness or pain increase, discontinue the exercise and consult your doctor;
- Never use a spa bath after drinking alcohol or taking drugs. They can cause drowsiness or changes in blood pressure;
- When you first enter the spa bath, spend a few minutes allowing your muscles to become accustomed to the warmth. Then start your exercise routine. Follow the same procedure afterwards, allowing time for your muscles to relax in the warm water before getting out.
If you’ve been inactive for some time you should speak to your doctor before starting any new programme.
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