It’s winter. If you live in a cold climate, the air outside may be frigid enough to make you want to spend the next couple of months hiding under a blanket.
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But if you have arthritis, avoid the urge to hibernate. Sitting still all winter is the last thing you need to do.
Why movement matters
There are a few reasons the sedentary lifestyle that often sets in during winter can be worse for people with arthritis. For one thing, people with conditions such as rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis are more prone to stiffness, and stiffness gets worse with stillness. For another, decreasing your physical activity can lead to weight gain, and more weight means more stress on your joints.
But there’s another reason many people don’t think about: endorphins. When you exercise, your body releases these “feel good” hormones, which actually have a pain-blocking effect.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you do it indoors or outdoors — just keep moving. Don’t use winter as an excuse to stay still, or your symptoms may get worse.”
Scott Burg, DO
Department of Rheumatologic and Immunologic Disease
I know there are plenty of hurdles to exercising during winter, but there are also ways to overcome them.
Make your home your gym
When picking any exercise program — including those you do at home — be sure to talk to your doctor first to make sure your workout is safe for your arthritis and any other conditions you have. A physical therapist can be a great resource, too, for getting you started with the right routines.
For patients who are willing to invest a little, I often recommend a stationary bike or small treadmill for brisk walking. These sorts of machines offer good low-impact exercises you can do in your home any time of the year. Other machines or workouts would need to be approved based on your condition and symptoms.
If you don’t have the space or don’t want to invest as much, you have other options. A set of light weights or resistance bands is inexpensive and can help you increase your strength and improve your muscle tone. Balance balls are excellent for improving your stability, which is especially helpful for avoiding falls during icy winters. Even if you don’t have a balance ball, you can do simple balance exercises such as standing on one leg at a time, using a chair or other support if needed. (I have some patients who like to do this in the shower under warm water.)
Join a class
Whether you prefer yoga (for flexibility and range of motion), Pilates (for core strength, flexibility and coordination) or some other fitness option, joining a class motivates you to move during winter.
Exercising with other people adds not only a feeling of accountability, but also a fun social factor. I have had patients tell me that once they have a class set for once a week, and once they get to know their classmates, they never want to miss it.
In some cases, you will have to join a gym or community center to participate, but that’s not always true. For example, the Arthritis Foundation offers aquatics classes in many communities that don’t require a membership. And water workouts are ideal for people with arthritis — they’re low-impact, they’re great for increasing range of motion, and the warm water simply feels really good.
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Play in the snow
If you’re fit enough for it and staying inside gives you cabin fever, keep exercising outdoors in winter, too.
For appropriate patients, I have started to recommend snowshoeing. It’s a wonderful calorie-burning adventure for those who enjoy the beauty of a snowy landscape. It’s also an alternative to skiing if your knees or other joints need something lower-impact.
If you snowshoe, bike, walk or do something else outdoors in winter, use good sense by wearing appropriate layers of clothes and staying hydrated in the cold, dry air. And be sure to warm up beforehand to avoid stiffness. For some, that means a few minutes of stretching. If you do have a treadmill, though, five minutes of walking at 3 to 3.5 m.p.h. is an ideal option.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you do it indoors or outdoors — just keep moving. Don’t use winter as an excuse to stay still, or your symptoms may get worse.