How exercise can help arthritis
Jun 25, 2018
Arthritis affects nearly four million Australians. This condition can be painful, frustrating, and significantly impact the quality of your life. The good news is that increasing your muscle strength will provide you with improved movement, pain relief, and a decrease in the tell-tale arthritic stiffness.
The musculoskeletal system is primarily made up of joints, muscles and bones. These three components work together to move the body so we can engage in everyday activities. Muscle strength and joint health have a particularly important connection. We must have good muscle strength for joint stability, to move a joint through its full range, and to circulate the synovial fluid that nourishes the joint.
Muscle strength is for everyone
The human body is designed to be active and to bear weight. Without activity and loading, it doesn’t function well. Even the elderly and those with current injuries should be engaging in prescribed forms of physical activity and muscle strengthening.
Muscle strength and arthritis
Arthritis is not a reversible or curable condition so while exercise cannot prevent or ‘undo’ the changes that have occurred, strong supporting muscles around a joint can significantly improve the symptoms of arthritis. This is true for both rheumatoid arthritis, the chronic inflammatory disease, and osteoarthritis, which is commonly thought of as the ‘wear and tear’ arthritis.
Exercise is a crucial part of managing arthritis to maximise function and joint stability, and minimise pain, stiffness and loss of range of movement. Arthritis sufferers typically have pain and stiffness and feel as if the joint is unstable. They may shy away from exercise because of concerns that weightbearing may do more damage and cause further pain. However, the opposite is true; we now know inactivity is worse than activity.
Exercises for muscle strength and joint health
There are four types of exercise that are beneficial. Regardless of whether you have a joint condition, an injury, or you just haven’t exercised in a long time, the advice is to start small and make exercise something you can commit to in the long term. It’s advisable to see a physiotherapist to prescribe a structured program that is tailored to your individual needs before you start.
Also known as resistance training, this type of exercise strengthens the muscles that support the joints. Body weight exercise and lifting light weights is ideal. The recommendation is to do 60 minutes, at least twice per week. Lunges, squats and bicep curls are all good examples of resistance exercises. Weights don’t need to be dumbbells or professional equipment; even items from around the home such as a bag of rice or a can of soup will suffice.
This is any activity that uses the large arm and leg muscles and increases your heart rate. The recommendation is to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, most days of the week. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Swimming, exercising in water and walking are ideal. There is considerable scientific evidence that shows cartilage responds well to dynamic loading and unloading, such as the pumping action of walking. If you’re having difficulty walking, using Nordic Poles will help to offload your legs and redistribute some of the weight through your arms.
Stretching exercises will maintain flexibility around the joint. It doesn’t have to take much time. Stretch after warming up for aerobic exercise or try incorporating gentle stretches into activities throughout your day. If you want something more structured, yoga is an excellent activity for flexibility.
Balance exercises help to reduce the risk of falls by retraining the sense of where your body is in space. For example, standing on a wobble board or piece of foam will improve coordination, core stability, agility and balance, and will teach your body to react to changing dynamics. As with flexibility training, there are no set recommendations. Instead, the best advice is to incorporate these activities into everyday life. For example, lift your foot up and stand on one leg while you’re in the kitchen or talking on the phone.
How to protect your joints
There are several ways you can actively protect your joints. Undertaking a moderate exercise routine is one. There has been a great deal of discussion about running in recent years and while running is an excellent cardiovascular activity, it can be very taxing on the joints, so vary your routine to incorporate other forms of exercise.
Second, make a point of getting out of your chair frequently during the day. Sitting for long periods is not what humans were designed to do and it is particularly hard on the back and knees. Lastly, avoid gaining weight as even a moderate increase puts a great deal more pressure on your joints.
If you have arthritis or an existing injury, seek the advice of a physiotherapist who will create a personalised and structured program for you.
Ann Beale is a physiotherapist at Ramsay Health Plus. Located on the grounds of Hollywood Private Hospital, Ramsay Health Plus provides the full complement of allied health services to the Western Australian community in one convenient location.