Regular exercise can, in fact, reduce joint pain for osteoarthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “People who exercise have improved daily function, reduced depression, reduced fatigue, reduced pain, and improved sleep,” according to Hareth Madhoun, DO, a rheumatologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
In other words, don’t use osteoarthritis as a reason not to exercise. Instead, make it your reason to start to be more active.
Why exercise is vital
Exercise can help you improve your health and fitness without putting pressure on your joints. With your current treatment plan, exercise can:
- Strengthens the muscles surrounding your joints
- Helps maintain bone strength
- Gives you more energy throughout the day
- Makes it easier to sleep soundly
- Helps to maintain your weight
- Enhances your overall quality of life
- Improves your coordination
Lack of exercise actually can make your joints even more stiff and painful.
That’s because keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is essential to maintaining support for your bones. By not exercising weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on your joints.
For every pound of body weight you gain, your knees gain three pounds of added stress; for hips, each pound translates into 6 times the pressure on the joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation. After many years of carrying extra weight, the cartilage that cushions the joints tends to break down more quickly than usual.
Plus, losing weight can reduce additional stress on joints that can cause cartilage to wear away. Easing the pressure on joints by shedding some excess weight can also reduce pain in osteoarthritis-affected joints, which will help you feel and move much better.
Essential tips to protect your joints
It’s so important to not overdo it, so start slowly to ease your joints into exercise if you have been inactive for a while. If you push yourself too hard, you can overwork your muscles and make your osteoarthritis worse.
Consider these tips as you get started:
- Low impact. Low impact exercises like fixed exercise bikes or recumbent bicycles, elliptical trainers, or exercise in the water help keep joint stress low while you move, even if you cannot swim, try water aerobics which is also fun or walking or other pool activities are just as beneficial.
- Apply some heat. Heat can relax your joints, ligaments and muscles. Plus relieve any pain you have before you begin. Heat treatments — warm towels, hot packs or a shower — should be warm, not painfully hot, and should be applied for about 15-20 minutes.
- Gentle movements. You should move your joints gently at first to warm up. You could begin with range-of-motion exercises for 5-10 minutes before you move on to strengthening or aerobic exercises.
- Start off slowly. Begin to exercise with slow and easy movements. If you feel any pain whatsoever, take a break. Any type of pain that is stronger than your usual joint pain might indicate something is wrong. It is essential to slow down if you notice swelling or redness in your joints.
- Ice your affected areas afterwards. Apply ice to your joints for up to 15 minutes as needed after activity, especially after activity that causes joint swelling.
You know your body the best so trust your instincts and don’t exert more energy than you think your joints can handle. Start off by taking it easy and slowly increase your exercise length and intensity as you progress.
1) Strengthening Exercises
Strengthening exercises help you build muscles that help support and protect your joints. Weight training is a good example of a strengthening exercise that can help you maintain and increase your muscle strength. Remember to avoid exercising the same muscle groups, so alternate them every day. Rest is also important to rest a day between your workouts, and take an extra day or two if your joints are painful.
When starting a strength exercising training program, a 3 times a week program can help you jump-start your improvement, but 2 days a week is all you need to maintain your gains.
2) Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercises will help with your overall fitness. They can improve your cardiovascular health, help you control your body weight and give you more stamina and increase energy.
Try to work your way up to 120-150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week. You can split that time into 10-20 minute blocks if that’s easier on your joints.
Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is the most effective and safest if it’s done 4+ days a week, but even a couple of days a week is better than no exercise at all, according to the Mayo Clinic. To determine if you are in the moderate intensity exercise zone, you should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising, even though your breathing rate will be increased.
Stretching will help improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and increase the range of motion, according to Medical News Today. Stretching daily, preferably in the morning, is important for relieving osteoarthritis symptoms.
The ideal stretching routine will vary from person to person and of course, will depend on which joints are affected and what symptoms occur. However, stretches often involve slowly and gently moving the main joints such as the knees, hands, and elbows.
An example of a typical stretching routine could consist of:
- Warming up by just simply walking in 1 place or pumping the arms while sitting or standing for 3–5 minutes.
- Holding every stretch for 10–20 seconds before releasing it.
- Repeating each stretch 3-5 times. A yoga strap may help people maintain a proper technique while stretching.
Many people will find it beneficial to work with a physical therapist who understands osteoarthritis to learn the correct way to perform the stretches that meet their individual needs.
Swimming is a great place to stretch your muscles and soothe your joints. Swim laps or try a water aerobics class. A study published in March 2017 in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation discovered that 16 weeks of water-based exercises in women with osteoarthritis led to significant improvements in joint and other pain when compared to the effectiveness of land-based aerobic exercises.
Swimming can also help to control weight, boost mood, and improve sleep and it’s good for general health too, according to Hareth Madhoun, DO, a rheumatologist at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
No gym membership or sports clothes required for walking. You can walk almost anywhere and it’s easy on sore joints. A small trial published in March 2016 in the Musculoskeletal Care Journal found that people assigned to a regular walking regime of three to four times a week generally had improved feelings of well-being compared to people that didn’t.
Other benefits of walking include weight loss and it promotes heart health. Craig Hensley, PT, DPT, an assistant professor of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern Medicine’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago mentioned that the cardiac benefit of exercise is especially important for people with osteoarthritis. That’s because osteoarthritis is known to increase the likelihood of heart disease, according to the Arthritis Foundation, so let’s get walking.
6) Tai Chi and Yoga
“When a joint and its supporting muscles are affected by osteoarthritis, the result is often impaired coordination, position awareness, balance, and an increased risk of falling, which is why people often complain of their ‘knees giving out’ when exercising,” Madhoun says. He also mentions that tai chi and yoga are great examples of exercises that improve body awareness, which can increase coordination and balance, a sense of where joints are positioned (proprioception), and relaxation. Plus, they also include flexibility, which boosts joint flexibility and joint function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Balance exercises such as standing on one foot are also valuable for avoiding falls. Just be aware you may need to modify some of your postures to lessen the stress on joints, and possibly use props to help with your balance, just to be on the safe side.
“Particularly for people with any kind of arthritis, the smoother motion of cycling minimises the jolting of traditional jogging on the joints,” Brian Lamoreaux MD explains, a rheumatologist with the Ohio State Department of Rheumatology in Columbus, Ohio. “Unfortunately, some people with osteoarthritis may have damage in their hands that can limit their ability to participate in cycling.
Pilates focuses on strengthening and improving control of muscles, giving you a low-impact osteoarthritis workout that eases pressure on your joints. Pilates can also be very helpful in managing pain and coping with the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation cautions people to stick to their own pace with Pilates and enquire about modifications if osteoarthritis symptoms are affecting you.
9) Hand Exercises
“The hands and the feet are usually hit first, and these are the joints that are predominantly involved in everyone with osteoarthritis,” according to Eric Matteson, MD, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. By exercising your hands you can help maintain range of motion, flexibility, and strength.
- Start by holding your hand in an upright position pointing your wrist, fingers, and thumb upwards. This is also the neutral starting position for many of the hand exercises that follow. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds.
- Keep your wrist straight in the neutral starting position then bend the base joints of your fingers, which connect the fingers to the palm. Keep your middle and end joints and your wrist dead straight. Hold in place for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat twice per day on each hand.
- Keep your wrist and the base joints straight then bend your middle and end joints of your fingers toward your palm, one at a time. Hold each position for 5 seconds. Repeat on all of your fingers and thumbs twice a day.
- Bend each finger from the base joint downwards using your other hand. Repeat this movement using the second row of knuckles in your fingers. Repeat this exercise on the third row of joints in your fingers, closest to your fingertips. Hold in place for 10 seconds. Repeat on all of your fingers and thumbs twice per day.
- With your hand straight and fingers pointing upward, bend your fingers downward so they are touching the palms of your hand. Don’t make a fist. Instead, your fingertips should be touching the palms of your hands. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat on both hands twice per day.
- Starting with your wrist, fingers, and thumb pointing upwards, make an “O” by touching your index fingers to your thumbs. Hold this for 5to 20 seconds. Repeat 2 to 10 times twice per day.
- With your hands in the neutral position and all of your knuckles in a straight position, slowly and gently spread your fingers as far apart as you can, like a fan opening up. From this position, clench into a fist. Hold each position for 5 seconds. Repeat on both hands twice per day.
Whichever exercise that you decide to do with osteoarthritis or osteoporosis, be sure to respect and protect your body with smart adjustments to equipment and various types of movement. “When people are in a flare of their disease, I often tell them to focus on their flexibility and low-impact exercises such as tai chi, yoga, swimming and walking,” says Anisha Dua, MD, MPH, an assistant professor and rheumatologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “When osteoarthritis is controlled, it’s highly beneficial to engage in some kind of regularly scheduled physical exercise, including aerobic and strengthening exercises.” Just remember to do them with the right posture and form, and to start off slowly to give yourself time to work up to a regular routine.