By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor
For the 21 million American adults suffering from arthritis, stiff, painful joints can make even an easy exercise program feel impossible.
But, with countless research studies backing up the benefits of working out, can you really afford to forgo your daily cardio?
The experts don’t think so.
Neil Roth, M.D., an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says, “there is nothing better,” than exercise when it comes to managing pain in people with arthritis. Though, he does admit that it can be hard for people who are in pain to stick to an exercise routine. “It is a catch 22, because arthritis pain can prevent a person from exercising, but it is actually one of the most beneficial ways to alleviate arthritis pain,” he says.
Thankfully, there are ways to make an exercise regimen more arthritis-friendly:
1. Prioritize pain management: According to Stephen Soloway, M.D., a rheumatologist, the key to a successful exercise program for people with arthritis is making sure their pain is under control before they start working out. This will involve a trip to your doctor to diagnose which type of arthritis you have, and prescribe any necessary anti-inflammatory medications or therapies. Once your pain and inflammation are under control, Soloway says you should be able to do most types of exercise without aggravating your condition. A doctor can also advise you on which kinds of exercises would be good to do, as well as which ones could be harmful.
2. Start slow: Warm-up is an often overlooked (yet integral) element of a workout—especially when a person’s joints are sore and stiff due to their arthritis. Before you hop on that spinning bike or pick up those dumb bells, you should do some gentle range-of-motion exercises (generally prescribed by a doctor or physical therapist), such as arm circles, hip lifts, and toe touches. Roth says it might also be beneficial to put a heat pack on your most painful areas prior to starting a workout. Heat can help relax and loosen up your muscles and joints.
3. Reduce your impact: When it comes to exercising with arthritis, low-impact is the way to go, according to Roth. He cites swimming, water aerobics, stationary cycling, and elliptical machines as great low-impact forms of cardiovascular training. Soloway also suggests practicing Tai Chi as a way to help increase balance and flexibility. Studies have shown that this ancient Chinese martial art can help reduce pain and increase mobility in people with different types of arthritis. It’s generally safe for an arthritis sufferer to lift weights, just be sure to check with your doctor before encouraging beginning a weight training program.
4. Mix it up: Switching up an exercise regimen can be extremely beneficial for someone who is suffering from arthritis, according to Soloway. “Workouts should be varied—not stagnant,” he says. There are numerous benefits to mixing it up in the gym, not the least of which is that you will be less likely to become bored and uninterested in working out. Soloway says that it’s important to consult with your doctor to come up with a workout plan that focuses on safely developing your cardiovascular capacity as well was your all-around strength and flexibility.
5. In pain, no gain: Both Roth and Soloway warn arthritis-suffers to avoid workouts that cause them pain. “You should exercise up to a point where you are tired, but it is not good to push through pain,” Roth says. Soloway adds that pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Especially if you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, Soloway says that you need to go to the doctor to make sure your inflammation is under control before you start an exercise program.
6. Work on weaknesses: When it comes to strength training, you might prefer to stick with the exercises that you’re good at. But Soloway says it’s equally (if not more) important for you to work on increasing strength in your weaker areas. Roth says that some of the most beneficial types of exercises you can do are those that strengthen the muscles that support your arthritic joints. A doctor or physical therapist can help you come up with a set of exercises geared towards strengthening the areas around your pain points.
7. Recover well: According to Roth, stretching before and after a workout can help your muscles recover more quickly. If you are particularly sore in certain areas, it may be beneficial to ice those parts of your body. When icing, make sure the ice pack is wrapped in a thin towel and don’t leave it on your skin for longer than 30 minutes.
8. Don’t forget to eat (right): There’s no magical diet that can take away aches and pains, but eating healthy can beneficial for anyone who has arthritis. Soloway suggests tailoring your diet to fit your exercise regimen. For example, if you are engaging in a good amount of strength-building exercises to build up the muscles around your joints, make sure you’re getting enough healthy protein (egg whites, almonds, chicken, salmon, etc.) to help fuel muscle growth. If you’re doing a good amount of cardio, make sure you’re eating high-quality carbohydrates (fruit, whole grain pasta and bread, brown rice, etc.).