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How Exercise Can be Used to Help Arthritis

According to Arthritis Ireland, there are nearly 915,000 adults and 1,150 children living with the condition, which makes it our countries single biggest disability today.  We all know the importance of exercise but many people with arthritis may find it difficult to carry out an exercise due to pain. Our Chartered Physiotherapist and specialist in Arthritic Exercise, Caroline Knox explains how individuals with arthritis can incorporate exercise into their lives.

Should I be Resting if I have Arthritis?

Long gone are the days when the appropriate advice from you Doctor was to ‘rest your joints’. In fact scientific studies have shown that participating in moderate intensity, low impact activity physical activity improves mood, mobility, function and quality of life for most of the adults with many types of arthritis including Rheumatoid arthritis, Osteoarthritis, Fibromyalgia and lupus without worsening symptoms or disease severity.Exercise can also help people with arthritis control the chronic conditions such as Diabetes High Blood Pressure and Obesity.     

People with arthritis may have difficulty being active because of pain, stiffness and lack of confidence regarding how much exercise to do and unclear expectations of when they will see the benefits. Both Aerobic and muscle strengthening exercises are recommended and work well for patients with arthritis.

Recommended Physical Activity for Active Adults & Active Older Adults

Two hours & thirty minutes moderate intensity Aerobic activity per week

This can be divided into 10 minute episodes and preferably spread throughout the week. You should pick an activity that does not twist or pound your joints too much however some people with arthritis can tolerate vigorous activity such as Running Volleyball or Tennis. Everyone is different and its important to find out what is manageable in terms of pain for you individually.

Examples:  Brisk Walking- Arthritis Ireland organise arthritis friendly walking groups and exercise seminars throughout Ireland, Swimming, Bicycling, Mowing the lawn, Doubles Tennis, Social dancing, Gym Machines;Stepper, cross trainer, Static Bike. Tai Chi, Yoga (more gentle forms eg Ananda and Hatha Yoga).

For even Greater Health Benefits the Aerobic activity should gradually be increased to 5 hours moderate intensity per week.

Muscle Strengthening activities twice weekly

This is especially important for people with arthritis as strengthening the muscles takes pressure off the joints. You should do exercises that work all the major muscle groups of your body and do at least one set of 8-12 reps.You can use weights, exercise bands or get involved in an exercise class -Arthritis Ireland organise some seated exercise classes.

Balance Activities at least three days per week

Many people with arthritis have fallen and have a fear of falling making the following exercises very important to incorporate.

Examples: Tai Chi, Backward walking, side stepping, heel toe walking, standing on one foot (close to a wall that you can use for support if required).

How hard should I be working?

With moderate intensity exercise your heart beats a little faster and you breathe a little harder you can talk easily but singing might be a little uncomfortable. You should get health clearance from your Doctor starting any new form of activity if you have arthritis or any other Chronic Health Problem.

Tips For Starting and Maintaining an exercise programme if you have arthritis

Make SMART choices:

  • Start Low and go Slow:  You  may be worried that increased activity will make your arthritis worse-In fact the opposite is true! Physical activity will help your arthritis. Starting low means that people with arthritis may take longer for their body to adjust to increased levels of activity this may mean eg you can only manage to walk 5 minutes at a time.  Adults with chronic conditions may take 3-4 weeks to adjust to a new level of activity.  You should add activity in small amounts try at least 10 minutes but less is enough as long as you are managing to progress.  Allow your body enough time to adjust to new levels of activity before progressing
  • Modify Activity as required: Any activity is better than none- if symptoms increase for more than a couple of days reduce your activity 50% or change the type of activity eg bicycling instead of walking-when your symptoms are back to normal gradually increase your activity again over a few weeks. 
  • Activities should be joint friendly;  Some People with arthritis can participate in vigorous activities even marathons! However if you are unsure of what you can manage pick joint friendly activities such as bicycling, water aerobics, walking or dancing.  Avoid twisting and pounding the joints too much-its important to pick an activity you enjoy.
  • Recognise safe places to be active: ensure paths are safe to use and are well lit. You may like to start under a trained instructor.  Arthritis Ireland organise classes publish exercise leaflets books and produce appropriate DVDs. 
  • Talk to your Chartered Physiotherapist: you should be under a Chartered Physiotherapist to help Manage your arthritis.  They can discuss your individual case and provide guidance and reassurance as you get more active.

If you would like to discuss arthritis with today’s author Caroline Knox (Baggot Street Clinic, Dublin), please book an appointment. If this is not a convenient location please remember that all of our Physiotherapists will be able to provide assistance and advice for people living with arthritis