Arthritis and exercise
Though there are medical arthritis treatments available, there are things you can do for yourself to help relieve arthritis symptoms, and boost your overall wellbeing.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to exercise more. There is evidence to show that by increasing your muscle strength and flexibility even by a small degree is likely result in a noticeable decrease in your symptoms, in particular pain levels7. Exercise might not always sound appealing when you have pain/stiffness in your joints, but it has been shown to reduce pain and alleviate arthritis symptoms8.
Generally, being inactive will only weaken your muscles, which can lead to lack of support in your joints, causing increased tightness and elevated pain.
Being active doesn’t only help strengthen the muscles that support your joints, but can also increase their flexibility and stability.
Stepping up your activity levels also helps to maintain a healthy body weight, which can help reduce unnecessary strain on damaged joints, as well as improving sleep, which supports body repair.
As you can see, there any many proven benefits of being active, but what type of exercise is safe and beneficial?
What exercise should you do?
There may be some forms of exercise that are more suitable than others, depending on which joints are affected. As for anyone looking to start a new exercise programme, it’s important to choose activities, exercises or sports that you enjoy and are able to do consistently. Ideally these would include a combination of different types of activity, which can benefit your body in different ways.
For example, in accordance to the NHS exercise guidelines9, a week might look like this:
- Boost your cardiovascular health by raising your heart and breathing rate doing some form of moderate aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes over the course of the week.
- Help to build muscle and bone strength through some form of resistance exercise twice a week,
- Include aspects of flexibility training for improved range of motion and joint mobility.
1. Low-impact aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise increases overall fitness and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases. It also helps us maintain a healthy body weight and can give you more energy and stamina. It is recommended to aim for low impact exercises that don’t put unnecessary strain on joints. These exercises typically include:
Moderate aerobic activities such as these should be performed three to five days per week.
2. Muscle strengthening exercises
In addition to low impact aerobic exercise, you could also try some muscle strengthening work, which will help to support and protect your joints. Try to perform large muscle group exercises using added resistance, such as your own body weight, resistance bands, machines or free weights such as dumbbells, two to three days per week.
Many people with arthritis can have stiff joints, so including some simple stretching exercises helps improve range of motion, as well as helping to minimise the risk of injury before and after exercise.
To stretch safely and effectively, slowly move into a stretch position to the point where you feel a stretch surrounding the joint, but not pain. Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds and repeat several times. Once flexibility improves, stretches can be held for longer.
Top tips to help you up your activity levels
- Start off slowly – this is especially important if you’re new to exercise or if you experience sporadic pain and/or discomfort due to your arthritis. Build the intensity and/or duration of activity gradually, to get used to the activity you’re doing
- Listen to your body – if you feel sudden pain/discomfort when exercising, stop and seek professional guidance from your GP or qualified sports professional. It may be that you just need to lower the intensity and work out what’s right for your body.
- Warm up and cool down – this will help to minimise injury and prepare your body for exercise. The Arthritis Foundation has many videos that will help you form a complete warm-up and cool down.
- If you’re new to exercising or struggling to stick to your new regime, try roping in a friend or joining a class.
Exercise can form a part of a valuable self-help strategy that you can fit into your routine. Following these tips should improve your symptoms and help you live a fuller life.