As an orthopaedic physician specializing in sports medicine, I often see patients whose physical activity has been greatly compromised due to arthritis. Their joints begin to hurt during activity, so naturally, they move around less and less. Unfortunately, this inactivity only leads to more pain. A common misconception is that joint pain will lessen if you decide not to exercise, but there have been many studies which support that moderate exercise, when properly performed, is beneficial for those of us with arthritis.
Regular, consistent exercise helps keep joints flexible, improves endurance and strength, and protects joints from further damage. Australian researchers conducted a study (over a 3-year period) on 8,000 middle-aged and senior women who reported their exercise, pain and stiffness levels. They found that if a person engaged in moderate physical activity for 75 minutes per week, their frequency of arthritis symptoms decreased. If they exercised for longer periods of time, they enjoyed even greater improvement in function and reduction in symptoms. Scientific literature supports the findings of this study…exercise helps lessen the frequency and severity of arthritis symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the United States. Osteoarthritis is one of the most frequent sources of knee swelling and pain, most often due to weight-bearing pressure over a prolonged period of time. Even when you are in a lot of pain, your joints perform and feel better when you keep moving. You cannot cure your osteoarthritis, but you can improve your range of motion and strength. Joints in motion are less painful because when you move, the production of synovial fluid in your joints increases. Synovial fluid is the clear, lubricating liquid in the cavities of synovial joints. It functions to reduce friction, act as a shock absorber, and transport nutrients and waste into and out of the joint. When a synovial joint is moved, the fluid is squeezed out to mechanically distribute and maintain a layer of fluid on the surface of the cartilage, which helps ease discomfort.
I frequently recommend physical therapy and exercise as an excellent starting point for patients who are experiencing joint pain. There are several forms of exercise that are great for people suffering from joint pain or for those trying to prevent knee pain.
Cycling is a great option for those people – it is a non-weight bearing, low impact exercise. The cyclical motion of pedaling actually stimulates the cartilage within the joint. Cycling is a fun and easy way to increase strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance and flexibility. Indoor stationary bike cycling is a good option for beginners and those with balance problems. People with certain forms of arthritis often develop balance issues, so they are less likely to injure themselves on a stationary bike. Move to outdoor cycling after you become stronger.
Swimming and Water aerobics offer cardiovascular conditioning, improvement of strength, range of motion and flexibility. Water is denser than air, and so is the resistance offered by it. Because of this property, hydrotherapy is highly recommended for those suffering with arthritis, joint pain, and people carrying extra weight. When you participate in water exercise, you will experience health benefits, fun, relaxation, and rejuvenation of the entire body!
Weight Lifting can help strengthen muscles and stimulate bone health. This must be done safely and correctly, because injury from improper form while lifting is common. With proper instruction and a few dumbbells, anyone can learn a few good strength-training exercises that are perfect for someone coping with arthritis.
Yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi – These forms of exercise each have unique principles, but they also have some common benefits. They all encourage muscle strengthening in a low-impact, gentle manner. They are safe for injured joints and can help improve overall body mechanics, such as posture, strength, balance, and flexibility. Other benefits are mood improvement – studies have proven that these exercises are linked with immediate increased levels of the brain chemical GABA (low levels are linked with depression).
Exercise offers us so many amazing health benefits, including stress relief, improved flexibility, concentration, weight loss, and management of chronic health conditions. I challenge you to begin an exercise regimen that works for you. Please be sure to consult your primary care physician before you begin a program, so that you can do so safely. With commitment and perseverance, positive results are guaranteed!
Boyd W. Haynes III, MD is a fellowship-trained, board certified Orthopaedic Specialist with Orthopaedic and Spine Center in Newport News, Virginia. Dr. Haynes’ practice is focused primarily on sports-related injuries and disorders. Call 757-596-1900 to make an appointment.