The question “Does exercise help arthritis?” is one you may have found yourself wondering if you or someone you love is suffering from this painful condition.
Arthritis is incredibly common, affecting about 1 in 4 American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in a new tab) (CDC). About half of people with arthritis experience some form of physical limitation as a result of their condition. Although the risk of developing arthritis increases with age, it is more common in people who are less active or inactive.
Although arthritis symptoms can be a barrier to some forms of physical activity, experts agree that exercise is one of the most important ways to reduce pain, manage symptoms, and even improve mobility.
Here, we take a closer look at the research on exercise and arthritis and talk to a medical expert about how exercise affects arthritis, which physical activities to try and which to avoid.
Does Exercise Help Arthritis?
Moving around can be hard on some days if you have arthritis, but staying active can help improve symptoms of this common condition. According to the American College of Rheumatology (opens in a new tab) (ACM), regular exercise can:
- reduce pain
- improve sleep
- improve daily functioning and mobility
- reduce bone loss
- reduce damage to small joints
The CDC (opens in a new tab) also recommends physical activity for people with arthritis, reporting that it can improve mood and quality of life, which research supports.
A randomized controlled trial in 2018 that was published in Arthritis Care and Research (opens in a new tab) found that aerobic and resistance exercise improved fitness in older people with rheumatoid arthritis, increasing their aerobic capacity, endurance and strength.
A systematic review in the Journal of Advanced Nursing (opens in a new tab) went so far as to say, “For RA patients, any exercise is better than no exercise. Additionally, a 2018 meta-analysis in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (opens in a new tab) examination of children and adolescents with juvenile idiopathic arthritis found that physical activity improved their quality of life and daily functions and reduced pain.
“Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce arthritis pain and keep your joints working well,” says Dr. Robin Clark, Bupa’s medical director. “In addition to improving your fitness and helping to improve your muscle strength, exercise can help you feel better overall.”
Robin qualified as a doctor in 2004 and has over 15 years of clinical and management experience in the UK national and private healthcare sector. He began his career as a general practitioner, later working as a clinical director at an American healthcare company, and later as a director for a local national health services group. He joined BUPA, a private healthcare provider, in 2015.
Best exercises for arthritis
“Before beginning any exercise, it’s wise to speak to a specialist to explain your symptoms,” says Clark. “They can give you advice on exercises to try, or they can recommend a more structured program to help you specifically with your symptoms.”
Clark recommends trying a variety of advice-based exercises. It will help you discover what you like. Additionally, it suggests physical activities that incorporate the following elements.
Exercises where you use weight or resistance using your own body will help strengthen your muscles and joints and reduce bone loss. They may even reduce the need for certain medications, such as corticosteroids. ACM (opens in a new tab)recommends using weight or resistance with enough intensity to challenge muscles without increasing joint pain.
Portable weights, the best resistance bands (opens in a new tab)or even swimming can improve muscle strength.
These exercises increase your heart rate and make you out of breath a little. Low-impact aerobic activities, such as cycling (either outdoors or on one of the best exercise bikes (opens in a new tab)) walking or swimming can help reduce joint strain and improve heart, lung, and muscle function. They may also reduce the risk of obesity, improve sleep, and improve your mood.
These exercises stretch your muscles and help keep your joints moving properly. ACM (opens in a new tab) suggests golf, tennis, yoga, and Tai Chi to improve your range of motion (ROM) and flexibility. Using one of the best foam rollers can also improve your ROM.
ACM (opens in a new tab) also recommends body awareness exercises. These include physical activities to improve posture, balance, sense of joint position, coordination and relaxation. Tai chi and yoga incorporate these elements.
Exercises to Avoid
Exercises that involve both feet off the ground, such as jumping, put too much pressure and strain on the joints and quickly increase pain.
Vigorous, high-impact exercises such as aerobics and running can also affect the joints.
Whatever you decide to try, the CDC (opens in a new tab) has a helpful checklist of SMART tips to ensure you stay safe while exercising:
- Start low and slow
- Modify your activities when your symptoms increase rather than stopping
- Activities should be fun
- Recognize safe places and ways to be active
- Speak to a healthcare professional or exercise specialist for advice
“If you’re feeling pain, that’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re doing too much,” Clark explains. “It’s also helpful not to force yourself to do exercises that you don’t enjoy. Exercise is about finding something you want to stick to that keeps you fit and healthy.
This article is not intended to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or health care professional before adopting any diet or exercise regimen.
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