Exercising with Arthritis

An estimated 40 million people have some form of arthritis. The two most common forms are osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease characterized by a progressive loss of cartilage, and rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic condition causing the lining of the joints to become inflamed. Both conditions can make exercise a difficult and painful proposition.  However, a well-designed physical activity program can decrease joint swelling and pain and improve overall function. Furthermore, regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight (which reduces pressure on your joints) and improve cartilage and bone tissue health. The key is to keep yourself active in a variety of ways, and you will be on your way to greater mobility and better health. 
Osteoarthritis is a common condition in older adults, and people can live many years with osteoarthritis. People with osteoarthritis are commonly concerned that physical activity can make their condition worse. Osteoarthritis can be painful and cause fatigue, making it hard to begin or maintain regular physical activity. Yet people with this condition should get regular physical activity to lower their risk of getting other chronic diseases, such as heart disease or type 2 diabetes, and to help maintain a healthy body weight.

Strong scientific evidence indicates that both aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activity provide therapeutic benefits for persons with osteoarthritis. When done safely, physical activity does not make the disease or the pain worse. Studies show that adults with osteoarthritis can expect improvements in pain, physical function, quality of life, and mental health with regular physical activity.

People with osteoarthritis should match the type and amount of physical activity to their abilities and the severity of their condition. Most people can usually do moderate-intensity activity for 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week or more, and may choose to be active 3 to 5 days a week for 30 to 60 minutes per episode. Some people with arthritis can safely do more than 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week and may be able to tolerate equivalent amounts of vigorous-intensity activity. Health-care providers typically counsel people with osteoarthritis to do activities that are low impact, not painful, and have low risk of joint injury. Swimming, walking, and strength-training are good examples of this type of activity.

  • Select low-impact and non-impact activities such as walking, swimming, water exercise and cycling.
  • An extended warm-up and a gradual cool-down may help reduce the likelihood of aggravating joint pain.
  • Spread your activity throughout the day (e.g., 10-minute sessions).  Set time goals rather than distance goals.
  • Be prepared to adjust your workouts according to fluctuations in your symptoms.
  • Avoid overstretching.
  • Some discomfort after your workouts is to be expected, but you should not be in pain.

3 Responses to “Exercising with Arthritis”

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