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How to Exercise When You Have Arthritis

Part 1 of 2 - Exercise Is One Part of a Comprehensive Arthritis Treatment Plan

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Updated May 22, 2014

People with arthritis should always discuss their exercise plans with a doctor. The amount and form of exercise recommended for each individual will vary depending on:

A skilled physician who is knowledgeable about the medical and rehabilitation needs of people with arthritis, working with a physical therapist also familiar with the needs of people with arthritis, can design an exercise plan for each patient.

Should People With Arthritis Exercise?

Studies have shown that exercise helps people with arthritis in many ways. Exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness and increases:

  • flexibility
  • muscle strength
  • cardiac fitness
  • endurance

It also helps with weight reduction and contributes to an improved sense of well-being.

How Does Exercise Fit Into a Treatment Plan for People With Arthritis?

Exercise is one part of a comprehensive arthritis treatment plan. Treatment plans also may include:

Treatment also may include instruction on:

3 Types of Exercise Are Best for People With Arthritis

  • Range-of-motion exercise (e.g. dance) help maintain normal joint movement and relieve stiffness. This type of exercise helps maintain or increase flexibility.
  • Strengthening exercise (e.g. weight training) help keep or increase muscle strength. Strong muscles help support and protect joints affected by arthritis.
  • Aerobic or endurance exercise (e.g. bicycle riding) improve cardiovascular fitness, help control weight, and improve overall function.

Weight control can be important to people who have arthritis because extra weight puts extra pressure on many joints. Some studies show that aerobic exercise can reduce inflammation in some joints.

Most health clubs and community centers offer exercise programs for people with physical limitations.

How Does a Person With Arthritis Start an Exercise Program?

People with arthritis should discuss exercise options with their doctors and other health care providers. Most doctors recommend exercise for their patients. Many people with arthritis begin with easy, range-of-motion exercises and low-impact aerobics. People with arthritis can participate in a variety of, but not all, sports and exercise programs. Your doctor will know which, if any, sports are off-limits.

Your doctor may have suggestions about how to get started or may refer the patient to a physical therapist. It is best to find a physical therapist who has experience working with people who have arthritis. The physical therapist will design an appropriate home exercise program and teach clients about:

How to Get Started

  • Discuss exercise plans with your doctor.
  • Start with supervision from a physical therapist or qualified athletic trainer.
  • Apply heat to sore joints (optional; many people with arthritis start their exercise program this way).
  • Stretch and warm up with range-of-motion exercises.
  • Start strengthening exercises slowly with small weights (a 1- or 2-pound weight can make a big difference).
  • Progress slowly.
  • Use cold packs after exercising (optional; many people with arthritis complete their exercise routine this way).
  • Add aerobic exercise.
  • Ease off if joints become painful, inflamed, or red, and work with your doctor to find the cause and eliminate it.
  • Choose the exercise program you enjoy most and make it a habit.

Consider appropriate recreational exercise (after doing range-of-motion, strengthening, and aerobic exercise). Fewer injuries to joints affected by arthritis occur during recreational exercise if it is preceded by range-of-motion, strengthening, and aerobic exercise that gets your body in the best condition possible.

How Often Should People With Arthritis Exercise?

  • Range-of-motion exercises can be done daily and should be done at least every other day.
  • Strengthening exercises should be done every other day unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints.
  • Endurance exercises should be done for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints. According to the ACR, 20 to 30 minute exercise routines can be performed in increments of 10 minutes over the course of a day.

Are Researchers Studying Arthritis & Exercise?

Researchers continue to look for and find benefits from exercise to patients with:

Researchers are also studying the benefits of exercise in older populations.

Go on to Part 2 --- How to Exercise With Arthritis --->

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