Joint Resolution: Exercise and Arthritis

It's an ongoing debate: Does running lead to arthritis? Some health professionals say the continual pounding on knee and ankle joints leads to wear and tear, and eventually arthritis. Others claim that the same wear actually helps keep joints and tissues healthy.

Fortunately, running isn't the only option available to those who want to achieve optimal fitness. There are several low-impact alternatives to choose from, such as walking, biking, swimming, and water aerobics any of which can boost flexibility, strength, and endurance.

Why Arthritis Sufferers Should Exercise

If you've already been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, it's important to stay active. Not only will it improve your general health; it may also help to reduce pain and improve mobility. The American Council on Exercise provides the following 10 reasons why arthritis sufferers should exercise:

  1. Flexibility training helps improve range of motion and reduces stiffness in afflicted joints.

  2. Aerobic exercise, particularly low-impact activities such as walking, helps reduce the psychological and emotional pain that often accompanies arthritis.

  3. Strength training builds muscle strength, enhances joint stability, and improves mobility.

  4. Weight-bearing (such as walking) or weight-loading (such as strength training) exercise helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

  5. Arthritis can negatively affect posture, balance, and coordination, all of which may be improved by regular exercise.

  6. Excess weight places additional strain on the joints. Along with a sensible diet, exercise plays a key role in helping individuals maintain normal body weight.

  7. Exercise has been shown to help manage stress, which can take its toll on the whole body, including the joints.

  8. People with arthritis often become depressed and develop a poor self-image. Exercise helps prevent depression and creates positive mental outlooks.

  9. Painful joints can interfere with a good night's sleep. Regular exercise has been shown to improve overall sleep patterns and may help lessen this problem.

  10. Because arthritis frequently leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, individuals with this condition are often at an increased risk of developing other significant health problems, such as heart disease or diabetes. Staying active and exercising regularly is an effective means of not only controlling the effects of arthritis, but also minimizing or eliminating the risk of developing other lifestyle-related diseases.

Tips for Staying Active

Although everyone should exercise, there are some special considerations arthritis sufferers should keep in mind. First and foremost, it's important to ease into exercise, pace yourself, and listen to your body. Follow these additional tips to get on the road to safe, arthritis-friendly fitness.

  • Stretch Out. Stretching prior to exercise, particularly your hamstrings and quads, prepares your body for a workout and can help prevent injury.
  • Warm Up. Before you exercise, warm up for a good five minutes. It will both condition your muscles and boost your blood flow.
  • Go Easy. Remember, it's important that you ease into exercise. Don't shoot to match your target heart rate at first; 60 percent of that number is a great starting place.
  • Watch Your Form. When it comes to exercise, what you do isn't as important as the way you do it, so always watch your form. The last thing anyone and particularly arthritis sufferers need is a strain or sprain.
  • Beware of Meals. Although it's important to stay well-nourished, you shouldn't eat for at least two hours before exercising. The digestive process can cause cramping and nausea.
  • Stay Hydrated. Drinking plenty of water will help increase your circulation and prevent injury. Most experts recommend consuming at least 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes while working out and replenishing yourself afterward.
  • Cool Down. One of the biggest fitness mistakes people make is not allowing themselves adequate time to cool down afterward. So be sure to take at least 10 minutes to for stretching and deep breathing.
  • Leave It to the Pros. For anyone seeking to improve their fitness (and, especially for arthritis sufferers) physical therapists can be extremely valuable. Not only can they create an exercise plan customized just for you; they can observe you while you're working out and correct your form. Consider booking a few sessions, even if it's for a limited time.
  • Listen to Your Body. Perhaps most importantly, always listen to your body. If you're starting to feel fatigue or discomfort, stop before it escalates. Whatever you do, you shouldn't overexert yourself.

Although the Arthritis Foundation recommends that arthritis sufferers perform range of motion exercises one to two times daily and strength training two or three times a week, it's important to contact your physician before starting any new fitness regimen.