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Exercising when you have arthritis

A look at how exercise can help people with arthritis and what types of exercise are best.

The aches and pains of arthritis can slow you down and make you think that moving around is a bad idea. Well, think again. Regular exercise is actually one of the best medicines for arthritis.

"People with any type of arthritis should exercise," says Selene Parekh, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and an orthopedic surgeon at Duke University. "Exercise is good for your joints."

How exercise can help

Regular exercise offers a variety of benefits to people with arthritis. According to Dr. Parekh and the Arthritis Foundation, exercise can:

  • Keep the muscles around the joints strong. Strong muscles improve overall function and benefit the joints directly by providing support and reducing stress.
  • Reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Increase joint flexibility and endurance.
  • Keep bones strong and healthy.
  • Make it easier for you to perform daily tasks.
  • Give you more energy.
  • Help you sleep better.
  • Make you feel better about yourself.

Regular physical activity can also be good for joints that have already been damaged by arthritis.

"When you have arthritis, a lot of the cartilage around your joints is often worn away," Dr. Parekh says. "Exercise helps the cartilage that you do have stay as healthy as possible."

Types of exercise

The type of exercise that is best depends on which joints are bothering you. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you what types of exercise will be most helpful for you.

But in general, any type of activity that gets you moving is good.

"Any type of low-impact exercise is usually beneficial to all types of arthritis," Dr. Parekh says. "Things like walking, biking and swimming are all good, low-impact exercises for people with arthritis."

A well-rounded exercise program should include:

Aerobic exercise, which is good for your heart and lungs and can increase energy and stamina and reduce inflammation.

According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), safe aerobic exercises include walking, bicycling, aquatic exercise, or using a stationary bike or treadmill. Daily activities such as raking leaves or walking the dog can be aerobic if done at a moderate intensity level.

Strength/resistance training, which can make joints more stable, strengthen bones and muscles, and reduce the risk for osteoporosis and fractures.

The ACR recommends exercising the major muscle groups of the body two to three times a week. Resistance exercises can involve things such as lifting a limb against gravity, using weights or elastic bands, using a weight machine, or fast movement of a limb in water.

Flexibility exercises, which include stretching and range-of-motion activities, can improve function and reduce joint stiffness.

According to the ACR, stretching exercises should be done at least three days a week. Range-of-motion exercises are typically done 5 to 10 times a day.

Exercise with care

Before starting any new type of exercise program, you should talk to your doctor about how it may affect your arthritis.

"You should start out slow and gradually increase the length and difficulty of your exercise program," Dr. Parekh says. "You don't want to start out right away walking or swimming long distances."

It's also important to pay attention to how your joints react to exercise.

"Listen to your body," Dr. Parekh says. "If the pain is sharp and stabbing, you should probably ease up or stop. But if it is just a dull, aching type of pain, that's probably OK to keep exercising."

reviewed 4/30/2019

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