Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis

— it increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain and helps combat fatigue.

Of course, when stiff and painful joints are already bogging you down, the thought of walking around the block or swimming a few laps might seem overwhelming.

As you consider starting an arthritis exercise program, understand what’s within your limits and what level of exercise is likely to give you results.
Running a marathon or swimming as fast as an Olympic competitor to help reduce the symptoms of your arthritis isn’t necessary.

Even moderate exercise can ease your pain and help you maintain a healthy weight. When arthritis threatens to immobilize you, exercise keeps you moving.

Exercise is vital for improving health and fitness. It strangthens muscles around the joints; helps maintain bone strength; provides more energy and strength for everyday life; makes it easier to sleep; helps control weight and improves well-being and self esteem.

Many think exercise will aggravate joint pain and stiffness, that’s not the case. Lack of exercise actually can make joints even more painful and stiff because keeping the muscles and surrounding tissue strong is crucial to maintaining support for the bones. Not exercising weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on joints.

Talk to your doctor about how exercise can fit into the current treatment plan. What types of exercises are best for you depends on the type of arthritis and which joints are involved. Your doctor or a physical therapist can work to find the best exercise plan to give you the most benefit with the least aggravation of your joint pain.
Exercises

Range-of-motion exercises
These exercises relieve stiffness and increase ability to move by rolling joints through their full range of motion. These exercises can be done daily or at least every other day.
Strengthening exercises
These exercises help build strong muscles that help support and protect joints. Weight training is an example of a strengthening exercise that can help maintain current muscle strength or increase it. Do strengthening exercises every other day — but take an extra day off if joints are in pain or if any
swelling occurs.

Aerobic exercise
Aerobic or endurance exercises help with overall fitness. These exercises improve cardiovascular health, help control weight and provide more stamina. Examples of low-impact aerobic exercises that are easier on joints include walking, riding a bike and swimming. Try to work up to 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week. Split up that time into 10-minute blocks if its easier.

Other activities
Any movement, no matter how small, can help. If a particular workout or activity appeals to you, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor. Your doctor might say to try gentle forms of yoga and tai chi. Tai chi may improve balance and help prevent falls. Be sure to tell the instructor about your condition and avoid positions or movements that can cause pain.

Tips to protect joints
Start slowly to ease joints into exercise if you haven’t been active for a while. Pushing yourself too hard can overwork your muscles which can worsen joint pain.

Consider these tips when getting started:

• Apply heat. Heat can relax joints and muscles and relieve any pain before beginning. Heat treatments — warm towels, hot packs or a shower — should be warm, not painfully hot, and should be applied for about 20 minutes.

• Move gently. Move joints gently at first to warm up. Try beginning with range-of-motion exercises for five to 10 minutes before moving on to strengthening or aerobic exercises.

• Go slowly. Exercise with slow and easy movements. If pain occurs, take a break. Sharp pain and pain stronger normal might indicate a problem. Slow down if inflammation or redness occurs.

• Ice afterward. Apply ice to joints as needed after activity, especially if there’s joint swelling.

• Trust your instincts. Don’t exert more energy than you think your joints can handle. Slowly work your exercise length and intensity up as you progress.

• Don’t overdo it.

In general, if pain lasts longer than two hours after exercising, the exercise was too strenuous. Talk to your doctor about what pain is normal and what pain is a sign of something more serious.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, ask your doctor if you should exercise during general or local flares. One option is to work through joint flares by doing only range-of-motion exercises, just to keep your body moving.

Exercise for those with arthritis
Check with your doctor about exercise programs in the area for people with arthritis. Hospitals and clinics sometimes offer special programs, as do local health clubs.

The Arthritis Foundation conducts exercise programs for people with arthritis in many parts of the United States. Programs include exercise classes — in water and on land — and walking groups. Contact your local branch for more information.
By Mayo Clinic Staff

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