6 Ways to Exercise With Arthritis

Hint: Walking the dog is not enough
water aerobic class

By: Scott Burg, DO

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If you have arthritis, the benefits of exercise are abundant. The endorphins released by a good workout can reduce your pain. The weight you lose over time can ease stress on your aching back and joints. The flexibility, mobility and stability you gain can ease all of your symptoms.

Here’s the catch: Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated. Pain, stiffness or fatigue get in the way. But if you know how to get started, you can overcome this catch and get moving.

  1. Go for low impact
    I typically recommend low-impact aerobic exercise. Activities such as speed walking, riding a stationary bike and swimming get your heart rate up without beating up your body. If you prefer more social exercise, ask about options for classes. For example, low-impact step aerobics can be a great workout for people with osteoarthritis, but you should probably avoid the butt-burning — and injury-inducing — high-impact variety. It all depends on you and your particular condition, so talk to your doctor before starting any program.
  2. Dedicate time to exercise
    Working in your garden, walking your dog, taking the stairs — these are all great ways to add movement to your daily life. But they’re not enough. To get the maximum benefit from exercise, you need to make time to focus on it. Work with a professional to pick an exercise, then start by doing 20 minutes three times per week. Over time, as you get more fit, you can try adding more time.
  3. Know your limits
    There’s a reason I suggest starting with the modest goal of 20 minutes at a time. If you have arthritis, you need to ease yourself into any new exercise program. Tailor it to your specific condition. If you have joint damage in your knees, a high-impact activity like basketball may not be right for you. Or try smaller doses of your favorite activities. For example, if you have lower back problems but can’t bring yourself to give up golf, try playing 9 holes at a time instead of 18.
  4. Ask a physical therapist
    If your doctor offers physical therapy as a treatment option, take it. I can’t stress enough how much better it is to work with a professional on proper exercise form rather than just doing it yourself with a sheet of exercises. A good physical therapist can design an exercise program that’s appropriate for you and increase the intensity over time. As a bonus, physical therapists are great at encouraging you and helping you establish helpful habits.
  5. Use it or lose it
    There are three main goals for exercise with arthritis: mobility, stability and flexibility. Stability can be regained with strengthening and stretching, but there’s a “use it or lose it” factor for flexibility and mobility. The more you let yourself go without exercise, the harder it is to regain them. If you’re worried about injuring yourself, consider starting with something mild like Tai Chi. This slow-moving exercise is great for increasing balance, mobility and flexibility.
  6. Forget “no pain, no gain”
    This old-school coach advice may work for hardcore athletes, but it’s not appropriate for someone with arthritis. If you try an exercise and it causes your condition to flare up, stop doing it. Then be open and honest with your doctor and physical therapist about what causes your pain. Sometimes a simple correction in form or an alternative exercise will do the trick.

In other words, respect your pain — and respect your arthritis. If you exercise properly, you can improve both.

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