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Arthritis & Exercise: Relief Through Resilience

Posted by Carewell Staff on Sep 16th 2020

Joints are made to move. If a person rests a sore knee or hip or elbow day after day, the muscles that support the joint will slowly weaken. At the same time, the tendons that attach the muscle to the bone will become less elastic. To a person with arthritis, this all adds up to more pain and stiffness.

The good news? Regular exercise can reverse this downward slide.

When Charlie Jannings talks about exercise, you should take him seriously. He's a doctor. He's a kickboxer. He's the reigning male athlete of the year at the Big Sky State Games, an Olympic-style event in Montana.

Did we mention he's also 75?

As a specialist in geriatrics and sports medicine, Charlie has reason to be obsessed with exercise. He knows firsthand that physical activity is a powerful remedy for the chronic pain caused by arthritis. When patients seek relief for their sore, stiff joints, Charlie offers a standard RX: "I tell them to move their joints every day in every way."

Make it a part of your lifestyle

Doctors across the U.S. are dishing out the same advice, but unfortunately patients aren't always ready to listen. Jane (pseudonym), an 83-year-old from Baltimore, had a typical response when her doctor encouraged her to exercise: "My joints hurt, and I thought I was supposed to rest them."

Jane also had some pretty serious injuries from prior attempts to ride a bike, including torn ligaments in her right knee. Even when that injury healed, she knew the pain wasn't over. "My doctor said I'd get arthritis when I got old," she says. "Seven years ago, I got old."

First, her right knee began to hurt. Then, the rest of her body caught up, with osteoarthritis creeping into her other knee, hips, wrists, shoulders, and neck. More than once, the pain caused her to become trapped in the bathtub or on the toilet. Jane realized she had two options: Do something about her arthritis or lose her independence.

Now, Jane starts every day with stretches to warm up her muscles and ease the stiffness in her joints. Next, she works her joints by doing leg lifts with weights strapped to her ankles. These exercises give her the strength she needs to make it through the day. "I do them every day, come hell or high water," she says.

Reverse the downward slide

If a person rests a sore joints day after day, the supporting muscles will slowly weaken. At the same time, the tendons that attach the muscle to bone will become less elastic. To a person with arthritis, all of this adds up to increased pain and stiffness.

The good news? Regular exercise can reverse this downward slide. The muscles will become stronger, the tendons will become more limber, and the pain and stiffness should start to fade. Most people begin to notice improvements within six weeks, and some may even feel better almost immediately.

Osteoarthritis patients will yield another important benefit from exercise: Lifeblood to the cartilage that cushions their joints. Unlike other tissues in the body, cartilage doesn't get nutrients from the bloodstream; it gets nourishment from synovial fluid in the joints. When a joint moves, the fluid moved as well, providing the cartilage with a healthy dose of oxygen and other vital substances. Even better, regular exercise encourages the body to produce extra synovial fluid.

The four exercises you need

Four basic types of exercise will help patients with arthritis: Stretching, range-of-motion, strength training, and aerobics.

Stretches

Slowly stretch to a point of mild discomfort, hold for up to 30 seconds, and repeat five times. Spend at least 10 minutes a day stretching, making sure you cover every major muscle group.

Range of motion

Put every joint should through a full range of motion every day. If bending the joint in a certain way causes too much pain, experiment with movements that are more comfortable. Over time, try to gradually increase your flexibility until the joint regains its full range.

Strength training.

When lifting weights, go very slowly. You may need to start with a one-pound weight, or even no weight at all. Once you are able to easily complete three sets of 10 repetitions, increase the weight by a pound or two.

Aerobic activity.

Enjoy a brisk walk, hike, swim, aerobics class, or bike ride. Swimming is especially beneficial if your joints are very sore. Regardless of activity, don't push yourself hard. At most, your heart rate should reach 60-80 percent of its maximum.

Yoga: relief for arthritis pain

A small, controlled study in the Journal of Rheumatology indicates that yoga can significantly improve tenderness, pain, and range of motion. Another study in the British Journal of Rheumatology shows that yoga can be useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Remember those four key exercises above? Yoga combines stretching, strength training, and range-of-motion with breathing and meditation techniques. As an added benefit, you should feel relaxed and relieved of some of the stresses of living with arthritis.

Getting started

Before kicking off an exercise program, talk to you doctor or physical therapist to learn which exercises are right for your body. And pay attention to your limits: Signs of overexertion include heavy sweating, discomfort in your chest, and lingering fatigue.

Some patients will have to adjust their routines day by day to keep up with their body's needs. For example, Resnick encourages patients with rheumatoid arthritis to give their sore joints plenty of rest during a flare-up. Stretches, range-of-motion exercises, and weight lifting could further inflame the joint. Wait till the flare-up is over before you resume your routine.

As with any exercise program, the first steps are the hardest, especially for people with arthritis. "It's very easy to sit down and give up," says Helen Sollins, a 76-year-old who lives with arthritis.

Like Jane and many others, Helen decided to fight for her mobility. She stretches daily, rides a stationary bike, and stays as active as possible. "Exercise gives me such a feeling of satisfaction," she says. And she has no intention of slowing down, because her daily workouts help keep her independent. Now, that's an accomplishment worth fighting for.

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