Understanding arthritis: The benefits of physical activity

Regular exercise can improve the symptoms associated with arthritis such as pain, function, mood and quality of life as well as help those with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Nearly 54 million people in the United States have arthritis. The symptoms associated with arthritis, such as pain, aching and stiffness, can negatively affect a person’s quality of life. Simple things like walking or climbing a flight of stairs can limit the amount of work adults are able to do, making arthritis the leading cause of disability in this country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Fact Sheet At A Glance 2016 - Arthritis even though there are several ways to manage their symptoms, many people with arthritis do not know how. Research shows that being physically active could be the most effective “non-drug” method for reducing pain and improving movement. The CDC says that participating in arthritis-friendly exercise improves pain, function, mood and quality of life without making the symptoms of this disease worse. Physical activity can also delay the onset of disability and help manage other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

So where does a person start? Michigan State University Extension recommends that you first talk with your health care provider before starting any new exercise regimen. Since there are over 100 diseases and conditions referred to as arthritis, it’s important to consult with a doctor to make sure the types of exercise chosen benefits your condition without causing injury.

The Arthritis Foundation provides the following list of exercises that work best for osteoarthritis:

  • Range of motion or flexibility – these type of exercises maintain and improve flexibility with gentle stretching as well as movements that take the joints through the full span for which they were meant to achieve.
  • Aerobic/endurance – these exercises strengthen the heart, increase lung capacity, reduce fatigue, build stamina and helps burn calories. Aerobic exercises include walking, jogging, bicycling and swimming.
  • Strengthening - these kind of exercises help improve and maintain muscles strength which in turn support and protect the joints that are often affected by arthritis. Muscle strengthening activities, such as lifting weights, bodyweight resistance (push-ups, sit-ups) and working with resistance bands, ideally should work all the major muscle groups of the body.

If you are an older adult who has trouble walking or are prone to falling, it’s important to incorporate exercises that improve your balance at least three days per week. Activities that help improve balance include Tai Chi, backward walking/side stepping/heel and toe walking. Check with your local YMCA or Senior Center for classes that focus on exercises that promote good balance.

If you haven’t been active for a while, it’s not too late to start! Physical activity works best if it’s spread out during the course of the week and it can easily be broken into smaller increments of time during the day. The important thing is to start out slow, be realistic about what you can do and choose activities that you enjoy. 

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