Having arthritis and the accompanying aching joints may feel like a good excuse to give up on your exercise. But while you might need to slow down a little, there’s good evidence that maintaining or starting an exercise program can actually help you feel better.
For those with osteoarthritis, the cartilage in the joints at the ends of the bones begins to wear down over time. This can cause pain and lead to a loss of range-of-motion. With rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation in the joints can cause pain and lead to the loss of bone and even deformed joints. In both cases, although it may seem counterintuitive, exercising those joints can actually help.
How Exercise Helps
“Anytime you increase blood flow to the joints, you’re delivering valuable nutrients to damaged cartilage and tissue,” said SamFit’s health and fitness specialist, Carli Wymore, ACE–CPT. “As long as you have your doctor’s ok, doing exercise can actually keep your joints from stiffening up and can help maintain or even increase your range-of-motion.”
In addition to increasing blood flow, exercise helps by lubricating the joints and strengthening surrounding muscles to support a weak joint. And regular exercise can help with weight loss, which can take pressure off joints that are already weakened.
Consider a study published in JAMA of people with knee osteoarthritis which found that those who practiced aerobic exercise and resistance training had a lower incidence of pain and disability and an increased physical performance over those who did not exercise.
A separate study in the Journal of Aging Research found that exercise helped improve the overall function of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Study participants were involved in aerobic exercise and resistance training.
“There are really no limits to the types of exercises someone with arthritis can do,” said Wymore. “You aren’t necessarily limited to low-impact activities. Just adjust the things you want to do so it is appropriate for you— you never want to overload a joint that is already compromised.”
Wymore recommends aerobic exercise like walking or swimming that gets your heart pumping, and resistance training such as mild weight lifting or strengthening exercises. The combination keeps your heart and muscles strong, your joints loose and can improve your range-of-motion. She notes that the following exercises are great for almost anyone — even if you don’t have arthritis.
Exercises to Try at Home
- Start with your own body weight for resistance training if you aren’t ready to add weights.
- Use a sturdy chair to practice sit-to-stands to exercise ankle, knee and hip joints. For an alternate sit-up to strengthen core muscles, practice sitting at the front of the chair with feet flat on the floor, and leaning back with a straight back and tight abs.
- Practice an incline plank to strengthen your core muscles: Stand about two or three feet away from a counter and place your hands on the edge with your arms straight. Keep your back straight and your abs tight and hold for 15 seconds. Step forward with one foot to come out of the pose. The farther away your feet are from the counter (while maintaining shoulders over your wrists), the harder it will be. Work your way up to one minute.
- Resistance bands are a great way to gently build up strength, are portable, and available in a variety of weights. Find a brand that has handles and start with the lowest resistance, usually 5lbs. Many resistance bands come with an anchor to secure to a doorframe, or you can wrap it around a pole or sturdy furniture for many different exercises.
- Get started by opening and closing your hands around the handle of your resistance bands to loosen stiff joints in your fingers and hands.
- Rowing: Anchor the band in front of you at chest level. Face the anchor spot with the band taut and your arms straight; pull your hands back, keeping wrists just below your shoulders.
- Chest Press: With the anchor in the same spot, turn around so the anchor is behind you and the band is taut; stand tall and start with your arms bent and hands just below your shoulders; extend your arms straight forward.
- Overhead Press: Stand on the band and bring your hands up by your shoulders with arms bent and the band taut; extend arms straight up past the ears. If the band is too long or too short to do both arms at the same time, adjust the place where you stand and do just one arm at a time.
- Do aerobic activities you enjoy! Walking, swimming or hiking are all great options.
For resistance training, Wymore recommends starting with one set of 10 repetitions and working up to three sets of 15 repetitions for each exercise.
“Start slow. Do a few reps and then stop while you feel good and see how you feel the next day,” Wymore said.
Get more ideas for exercise.