Exercise is an important part of an arthritis treatment plan. Here, why it’s beneficial and tips for fitness success.

Exercise may be the last thing on your mind when you’re in pain, but gone are the days where arthritis patients were told to simply rest or stay still. Now, experts recognize that regular physical activity is an important part of the treatment plan for most types of arthritis.

It seems counter intuitive — after all, isn’t pain a signal that you should take it easy? While you should use caution during flare-ups, regular exercise can actually help reduce joint and muscle pain and has other benefits too. For instance, exercise:

– Lubricates joint cartilage, helping to reduce pain and swelling. (You’ll recall that osteoarthritis, where joint cartilage wears down, is the most common form of arthritis.)

– Helps reduce the effects of stress that can worsen symptoms.

– Boosts the mood, which helps with secondary symptoms like anxiety and depression.

– Improves balance, helping to reduce the risk of falls and injuries.

– Strengthens surrounding muscles and tendons to take the stress off joints.

– Helps bones stay strong.

– Helps maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts a strain on joints, and can increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in some joints like the knees.

– Maintains and improves range of motion, helping to keep joints and muscles limber.

– Improves energy and stamina.

– Promotes relaxation and better sleep. Many arthritis patients experience difficulties sleeping, but a lack of sleep can affect symptoms too.

What kind of exercise is best?

Exercise is a good thing — but not every activity works for every person. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 30-60 minutes of physical activity each day. (The amount depends on the intensity and kind of activity, and can include exercise sessions as well as daily activities like housework.) Everyone should include three types of activity: flexibility (e.g. stretches and range-of-motion exercises), strength (weight-bearing activities) and endurance (aerobic activities).

The same guidelines apply to people with arthritis — with a few adaptations, of course. High-impact activities like running, jogging or certain types of aerobics can cause stress on the joints and aggravate inflammation. Activities that involving jumping, twisting, turning or sudden stops should also be avoided.

However, low-impact aerobics, low-impact dancing, cycling and walking are activities that almost everyone can do. Even gardening and golf (minus the golf cart) count towards your daily total, and can be done with the aid of ergonomic or arthritis-friendly tools or gadgets.

Another favourite activity: Water aerobics or swimming. The warm water cushions and massages the joints, and provides resistance without bouncing or impact.

Flexibility and strength exercises are important as well, but some guidance may be required to modify activities according to ability, or to target range-of-motion activities to affected joints and muscles.

Tips for success

Starting a new fitness routine can be a little intimidating. Here are some tips to get you started:

Seek expert help. Anyone with a health concern should talk to their doctor before starting a new fitness regime, but people with arthritis may also want to seek the advice of a physiotherapist or personal trainer for help setting up and modifying a routine. This step is especially important for people who have joint deformity or muscle weakness.

Gear up. Proper footwear is a must-have to support your body and prevent injury. Experts recommend choosing shoes with good arch support and flexible souls. You’ll also want weather- and activity-appropriate clothing, and shield your eyes and skin from the sun.

Consider the setting. Your symptoms don’t have to limit your activity, but they can guide where and how you exercise. For example, if you’re worried about falling, opt for indoor activities like mall walking during the winter. If balance is an issue, consider exercises that you can do in a chair or on a mat.

Set SMART goals. Make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.

Ease into it. If you’re just starting out, or returning to your routine after a flare-up, take it easy and work up to longer sessions and more challenging exercises. You may feel some pain and stiffness at first, but experts note that will go away.

Pace yourself with periods of rest to balance out your increased activity, especially if you have a form of arthritis like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis that involves bouts of fatigue. You don’t have to put in half an hour all at once to get your required 30-60 minutes of activity per day; try 10 minute sessions throughout the day instead.

Sneak in some activity. Daily activities count too — like housework, taking the stairs, getting off a stop early if you take public transit, or parking at the back of the lot. You can also work in a couple of sets of strengthening exercises while the kettle boils for tea.

Take a class. Enjoy the motivation of a social setting — and take advantage of your instructor’s expertise to properly learn how to perform certain activities. Many activities like yoga or Pilates can be adapted to your abilities with a little expert help.

Warm up and cool down. It’s especially important for people with arthritis to include these essential steps in their workout.

Use heat and cold before you start (if needed). If your joints need some soothing, experts recommend applying some heat (for stiff joints) or cold (for inflamed joints) about 20 minutes before you start.

Avoid taking pain medications right before exercising. The medications can mask pain, which is an important warning signal from your body to stop or slow down. Experts recommend working your workouts around your medication regime.

Listen to your body. Depending on what type of arthritis you have, it can be tricky to tell when to work through the pain and when to stop. There’s a difference between pain caused by osteoarthritis and pain caused by an inflammation — not to mention injuries or the normal muscle aches that come with working out.

When in doubt, talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling and seek help from a physiotherapist.

Know when to give it a rest. If your symptoms are flaring up, adapt your routine accordingly. Experts recommend avoiding vigorous exercise for the affected joints, but try to get in some gentle range-of-motion exercises. Try to get some activity, even when you’re experiencing fatigue.

We know this isn’t as easy as it sounds — that’s why experts recommend one more tip: Reward yourself. Sticking to your routine can be tricky enough without the additional challenge of dealing with arthritis. Stay motivated by allowing yourself a reward when you meet your goals.

Sources: TheMayoClinic.com, American Arthritis Foundation, The Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center