How to Help Your Joints With Exercise

When it hurts to move, exercise might seem like the last thing you want to do, right? But if you have osteoarthritis, going for a swim or doing some strength training could be one of the best things you can do to feel better.

Keeping the muscles that surround, protect and support the joints strong can help you become more functional, says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. “If the muscles are strong, you can rely on the muscles to protect and stabilize the joint and take that load off the joint.”

Along with strengthening the muscles, exercise can help improve the range of motion of the joint, whether it’s a knee, shoulder or hand, and help reduce the pain of moving that joint. Strong muscles can help protect the joint from more damage.

Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease and doesn’t have a cure. The condition often affects the fingers, hips and knees by causing pain and swelling. But exercise can go a long way to helping manage your condition by reducing the frequency and intensity of flare-ups.

Inactivity makes it worse

Without a regular exercise program, your arthritis can be more severe, eventually leading to problems such as trouble buttoning shirts or even scratching your back.

“It becomes a vicious cycle. The pain limits movement and the lack of movement helps to limit movement of the joint or limb,” Bryant says.

Exercise can help give you energy, improve sleep, control weight, decrease depression and improve mood, boost self-esteem, and help protect you from osteoporosis and heart disease. Excess weight puts more load on your joints, worsening your osteoarthritis.

Anyone can start exercising, although you must check with your doctor first, particularly if you haven’t participated in an exercise program before. Don’t exercise during a flare-up or try to ignore pain. Your doctor can tell you which types of exercise activities are best for you, given the specific location of your arthritis.

A good program should include flexibility exercises, the foundation for exercise programs. Think of it as warming up a car. You are limbering up your body.

Weights, water, walking

Resistance training exercises are more vigorous than flexibility exercises. The muscles have to work harder when you lift weights, use elastic bands or weight machines. Muscles adapt by getting stronger and become better able to handle physical stress and work longer to help decrease joint pain.

Aerobic conditioning helps with weight control, mood and well-being. Walking, swimming, aerobics, water exercise, bicycling, or exercising on treadmills, rowing machines or elliptical trainers all count as aerobic exercise. Mowing the lawn, raking leaves, sweeping the driveway, playing golf or walking the dog are also good exercises.

Work with your doctor, physical therapist or personal trainer with special training in arthritis, especially if you have been sedentary for most of your life or have had arthritis for some time. Here are tips for developing an exercise program.

  • Build your exercise routine slowly. If you rush into a program or increase the intensity too quickly, you are more likely to quit or become injured.
  • If you can, walk or do other low-impact exercises. Don’t do exercises like running, which can be jarring and hard on your joints. Tai Chi and yoga are also great exercises because they involve gentle, slow movements while strengthening the muscles.
  • If your joints can’t tolerate much weight, try water workouts such as water aerobics or swimming. The water’s buoyancy decreases the effects of gravity so you have very little weight on the joints. Warm water (84 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) can be especially therapeutic.
  • Any basic resistance and flexibility exercises are good. Using light weights can help. These are relatively affordable.
  • Work up to 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week or every day, if possible. If you’re too busy to exercise 30 minutes at a time, you can exercise for shorter periods adding up to 30 minutes.
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Make sure it is low-sodium and low-fat. Such a diet helps you work through your activities and helps you feel better about yourself.
  • Look for excuses to get moving. Do some gardening. Walk around the mall with friends. Park your car far from the store. Just get up and move.