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Exercise recommendations for individuals with arthritis


Arthritis is common in the joints of the hands.  Personal Photo/Jennifer Cunningham
Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) and rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory disease) are the two most common forms of arhritis, and many people with these two types of the disease tend to be less active than their peers without either of them.  Movement, strengthening, flexibility, and cardio are all greatly important to improving arthritis and the overall health of the body. 
The longer the body goes without strengthening, the muscles begin to atrophy and provide less support to already weak joints.  Flexibility maintains or improves the range of motion in the joints, and people with arthritis are highly susceptible to losing range of motion in any affected joint.  The loss of motion combined with lack of strength leads to increased stiffness which leads to more pain and sets the joint at a high risk for injury.  This is a cycle that only gets worse with age so it is important to start a routine and keep it up throughout a lifetime.  It is never to late to start a routine either.  The older and more severe the arthritis, the more caution is needed with the routine.
Cardio exercise is especially important for those with rheumatoid arthritis because the inflammatory form of the disease affects other organs of the body including the heart. 
Here are some tips for starting an exercise routine if you have arthritis:
  • Start slow with low amounts of exercise.  This all depends on your current state.  If you have been sedentary for a long time, start with 10 minutes of walking 3-6 days/week for about 2 weeks.  Then try adding 20 minutes of walking, swimming, or biking for another 2-4 weeks.  Afterwards, try upping to 30 minutes.  The 30 minutes can be broken into three different 10 minute sessions in the same day.
  • Avoid stair climbing if you have arthritis in the lower body. Avoid contact sports and high impact aerobics like plyometrics.
  • Include strength training in your routine.  If you have weak wrists, try strengthening the forearms which stabilize the wrists.  This doesn't need to take long.  1 set of 10 repetitions to start with is good.  If pain or swelling are a persistent problem, reduce the amount of weight being lifted.  Machine weights and circuit rooms are usually a good place to start.
  • Always include a warm up, cool down, and stretching.  Stretching is vital to maintaining range of motion.
  • Be aware that you may feel a little tender after exercising, but discomfort is normal.  The tender feeling will fade after a couple weeks once the body is stronger.
  • Joint protection is important.  If you need to wear a brace, do it.  If you feel pain in a joint during an exercise, stop that exercise.  If a joint is too weak to do the prescribed exercise for the day, do something else. 
  • Exercise in the morning can sometimes be more difficult due to stiffness

Understanding the difference between pain and discomfort is very important.  Pain is never okay, but discomfort is expected.  A major goal for many individuals with arthritis should be to regain some of the functionality in the joints, and to enjoy the benefits of the exercise.  This is not a quick process, expect to see minor results in about 4-6 weeks, but major goals may not be reached for about 4-6 months.

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