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Can Strength Gain Help Arthritis Pain?

If you're got arthritis, chances are you're not exercising enough.

That's the conclusion researchers with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services came to after they analyzed data from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey. They found that, "Adults with arthritis were significantly less likely than adults without arthritis to engage in recommended levels of moderate or vigorous physical activity..." In fact, more than 17 million Americans (37% of arthritis sufferers) don't exercise at all.

It's a staggeringly high number. What makes it tragic, is that countless studies have shown exercise delays the onset of disability, decreases pain and improves function in arthritic people.

The reason people don't exercise is due in part to misinformation, myth and fear. To understand why, you first have to know what arthritis is.

According to the 2006 Random House Unabridged Dictionary arthritis means, "acute or chronic inflammation of a joint." Typically a body will react to injury or disease by becoming inflamed. For people with arthritis it's as if their body is constantly attacking itself. Over time, the near continuous inflammation causes tissue damage and bone degeneration.

Misinformation & Myth

Doctors used to advise people with arthritis to avoid exercise in the mistaken belief that exercise could further damage the joints and make the situation worse. It turns out that's not true.

At the Institute for Behavioral Research in The Netherlands they took patients with arthritis who were admitted to the hospital because of a disease activity and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. One group had three weeks of intensive exercise therapy when they were discharged. The other was given "usual care" when they left the hospital.

What they found was that the group with intensive exercise therapy had a "better quality of life at lower costs after 1 year." And that was with only three weeks of exercise! Hundreds of studies have come to the same conclusion. Exercise improves muscle function in people with arthritis and does not affect disease activity.

Fear

Arthritic individuals tend to avoid exercise because they're afraid it will hurt. Unfortunately for the first couple of weeks, they're right. Anyone who begins any exercise program will experience some muscle pains and discomfort when they start. But after the first few weeks, a regular program of exercise helps reduce long term arthritic pain and suffering.

If you're one of the 1 in 5 adults in the United States with arthritis, are you working out? If you don't, there's no better time than now. First check with your doctor and find out which, if any, sports or activities you should avoid. Then ease into it slowly. Here are some options.

  • Beginners may start with low-impact aerobic activities like riding bike, using a recumbent bike, elliptical machines, walking, swimming or a water aerobics program.

  • To help with joint stiffness, try range-of-motion exercises where you move and stretch each joint as far as possible. Yoga and tai chi are two excellent examples.

  • To increase joint stability, begin a resistance training program. Use lighter weights, machines or elastic bands and concentrate on maintaining form. As your muscles get stronger they can protect joints affected by arthritis.

  • Keep your initial exercise sessions from 15 to 30 minutes. As your strength grows, gradually increase the length of your workouts.

  • Make sure to warm up before beginning any program. Click Here for Dynamic Warmup exercises.

  • If you're unsure what to do, use a physical therapist or personal trainer to design and teach you a safe program. Look for for one that's certified and has experience working with people who have arthritis.

  • Finally, change your workout routine every 2-4 months. Constantly doing the same exercises without a break tears muscle down without giving it a chance to heal and grow.

Less pain and strength gain. When will you start?

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

3/23/2008
Updated 8/9/2018