How to Work Out with Osteoarthritis
How Exercise Helps Osteoarthritis
Find out how to get started with an osteoarthritis exercise program that's right for you and can help relieve your osteoarthritis symptoms.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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While researchers still don’t know the exact cause of osteoarthritis, we do know that being over the age of 60, carrying excess weight, and being out of shape all significantly increase your risk. If you already have osteoarthritis, or you want to decrease your risk of getting it, a regular exercise program can help.
Osteoarthritis: The Benefits of Exercise
There are many benefits to starting an exercise program — whether you have osteoarthritis or not — but for people with arthritis pain, there's added incentive to get moving. Regular exercise can help to:
- Reduce joint pain.Osteoarthritis destroys cartilage, special tissue that cushions our joints. “Exercise increases the lubrication to the cartilage of the joint, thus reducing osteoarthritis symptoms of pain and stiffness,” says Anne Menz, PhD, a physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, Mass. It may seem counterintuitive, butnotexercising actually leads to stiffer joints and worse osteoarthritis.
- Strengthen muscles.As we get older the muscles and tendons that support our joints tend to get weaker. “Exercise strengthens the muscles around the joints to protect the joints and provide [extra] support,” says Menz.
- Decrease pressure on joints.Studies show that being even 10 pounds overweight greatly increases the stress across your knee joints with every step you take. “Exercise can aid in weight loss to decrease pressure on joints,” Menz says.
- Improve overall health.Osteoarthritis symptoms can keep you from being active, which not only aggravates your osteoarthritis, but is also bad for your heart. “Exercise decreases all the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle,” like high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease, and stroke, notes Menz.
Osteoarthritis: Starting an Exercise Routine
“First, check with your doctor to get the green light,” advises Menz. She suggests starting slowly and finding enjoyable ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. “Start a walking program in your neighborhood, take ballroom dancing lessons with your spouse, or join an exercise class,” she advises. The more you enjoy the activity you choose, the more likely you are to stick with it.
Menz also recommends keeping an exercise journal; “A log will help keep you accountable and also provide motivation as you see you can do more each week.” For people who have not exercised in a long time or whose osteoarthritis symptoms make it too painful to jog or walk long distances, low impact exercise in a swimming pool can be very effective. “A water aerobics exercise class causes less stress on the joints, and most people can tolerate this type of exercise. Later on you can progress to land-based exercise,” says Menz.
Osteoarthritis: The Best Types of Exercise
People with osteoarthritis should consider adding the following types of exercise to their workout routine:
- Range of motion exercise.Stretching exercises are effective in preventing the osteoarthritis symptom of joint stiffness. You can get this type of conditioning exercise in a yoga or Pilates class.
- Aerobic exercise.Jogging, brisk walking, and swimming are all examples of exercises that get your heart rate up and increase blood flow to your muscles. They are very effective in helping to control the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
- Resistance training.Weightlifting and resistance-band training are strengthening exercises that help build up the muscles and tendons that support your joints.
“Your goal with osteoarthritis exercise training is to eventually work your way up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. This could be a stationary bike, walking, swimming, or dancing. You should also do strength training two to three days a week in an exercise class, or weights at the gym,” advises Menz.
If you are having trouble getting started, ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist. “A physical therapist can put together a program for you that includes pain relief strategies, range of motion exercises, stretching, and strength training,” says Menz.
Research shows that a good exercise program can slow down the progression of osteoarthritis and relieve osteoarthritis symptoms like pain and stiffness. Unfortunately, research also shows more than half the people who start an exercise program for osteoarthritis drop out within one year.
Ask your doctor or a physical therapist for tips on getting started and sticking with the program you choose. Then get out there and do your best to commit! “The most important thing is to be consistent. It may take six to eight weeks to see results.
Video: Osteoarthritis of the spine, Dilip Sengupta, MD
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