Arthritis is a painful condition that affects millions of Americans. The CDC estimates that 50 million U.S. adults have been told by a physician that they have some form of arthritis (including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus and fibromyalgia). In 2007-2009, 50% of adults aged 65 or older reported an arthritis diagnosis.
If you're one of those 50 million, I have good news for you. You can exercise as part of your arthritis therapy, and exercise--done right--will almost certainly make your symptoms more tolerable.
Two common forms of arthritis in older adults, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, have different origins and different symptoms. Osteoarthritis is considered a degenerative disease of the joints. The cartilage between bones deteriorates over time and can eventually lead to painful bone spurs at the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is considered an autoimmune disorder and is characterized by painful inflammation in and around the affected joints.
Joint pain often leads arthritis sufferers to decrease their activity, which can cause a downward spiral in their wellness. Decreased activity leads to decreased range of motion and flexibility as muscle tissue becomes shortened. A lack of activity also leads to muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular endurance. Over time, these conditions can lead to a loss of function and even an inability to manage the activities of daily living.
Exercise Guidelines for Arthritis Therapy
A few simple guidelines can get you on your way toward including exercise as part of your arthritis therapy.
1. Always consult your physician before beginning or changing your exercise program. Your medications or other conditions could influence the safety and efficacy of your exercise program.
2. Strive to maintain a healthy weight through controlled diet and moderate exercise. Carrying additional weight puts added stress on damaged joints and leads to further pain and deterioration.
3. Include flexibility exercises in your program. Gentle dynamic and static stretches can maintain or increase the range of motion in the joints. Warming the tissue prior to stretching (with a gentle warm-up or with heating pads) can make stretching more effective and more tolerable.
4. Strength training can improve joint function and decrease pain. By building the muscles that stabilize the joint and the surrounding tissues, you relieve some of the load on the joint itself. Keep weight training at a low intensity to prevent an inflammatory response in the joints. Be sure to allow 24-48 hours rest between strength training sessions.
5. Choose low-impact aerobic activities to maintain cardiovascular endurance. Walking and cycling are good choices if you have moderate arthritis. More severe cases may require water exercise. The buoyancy of the body in water allows you to elevate your heart rate without bearing your full body weight on your damaged joints.
6. Keep the intensity within your comfort zone and listen to your body. Pushing too hard serves no purpose and can lead to further damage and pain. In general, choose lower intensity and greater frequency of exercise. Rather than three intense workouts a week, try going for a walk or a swim 5 or six days a week followed by gentle stretches.
There's no question that arthritis can be a painful and debilitating condition, but a sensible, moderate exercise program can ease some of the symptoms and can prolong your ability to function for many years.
Have you tried including exercise as part of your arthritis therapy? Tell us what worked or didn't work for you in the comments.
(photo credit: National Institutes of Health)