Exercise as a prescription for arthritis has been well researched as an important component to staying active and pain free.
Arthritis occurs when the cartilage that helps to cushion your bones breaks down causing pain, swelling and stiffness of the joint. The causes of arthritis are unknown, however symptoms primarily occur during middle age. Other risk factors for developing arthritis include a genetic link, obesity, previous injuries, or long-term overuse in work or sports.
Regular exercise helps to decrease fatigue, strengthen muscles and bones, increase flexibility and improve overall well-being. Joints benefit from exercise by increasing circulation of synovial fluid, which allows nutrients into and out of the articular cartilage — a white, smooth tissue which covers the ends of bones in joints.
Before starting an exercise routine you may benefit from a consultation with your physician or physical therapist for an assessment of specific exercises to protect your joints.
Once you are ready to commit to an exercise regime, consider three types of activity — cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise, strengthening (resistance) exercise, and flexibility (stretching, range-of-motion) exercises.
• Cardiovascular exercise is any activity that uses large muscles and continuous motion. Activities can include walking, biking, light jogging, swimming and dancing. Typically, cardiovascular exercise should aim to keep your heart rate within a targeted range specific to you. Make short-term goals for yourself to gradually increase your workout by five minutes each session until you reach the desired time.
• Resistance training is also an important factor in your exercise routine. It helps strengthen your muscles and allow better shock absorption and protection to your joints. To help improve the strength of the large muscles around your aching joint without causing further damage, speak with your physician and physical therapist about an exercise plan. If you haven't exercised for a while, start slowly. As your strength and endurance improves you will be able to tolerate longer, more strenuous exercise.
• Flexibility exercises should be performed daily and can prepare your muscles for a more strenuous workout. Gentle stretching helps to protect your joints, and can also provide relaxation and stress release. There are several ways to maintain range-of-motion including Tai chi, Yoga, or simple movements that can be performed on land or water. Stretch muscles similar to those you are working during your resistance exercise. Stretching in the morning can help eliminate the morning stiffness that often accompanies arthritis.
To stay fit and improve your health without increasing your pain, it is important to find some exercise that you enjoy and will be able to do on a regular basis. It is OK to exercise through mild muscle soreness; however, it is important to develop a routine to avoid intensifying your arthritis pain.
Work with your therapist and physician to develop your right exercise plan. It may take some patience, but once established, you will reap the benefits of less pain, improved range of motion, increased strength, and improved quality of life.
Remember to consult your physician before starting an exercise program.
Lindsey Hejlek, MPT, MSCS, is a physical therapist in outpatient rehabilitation at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. For referral to a physician or physical therapist on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, call 314-996-LIFE.