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Exercise for arthritis: Everything you need to know

4 min read

Let's take a look at exercise for arthritis.

Arthritis is an umbrella term for a number of different conditions that cause aches, pains and swelling around the joints.

While this can make movement painful and difficult in some cases, it is important to keep exercising and stay active.

This blog will provide some easy to follow exercises, as well as giving you everything you need to know about exercising with arthritis.

  • Arthritis is an umbrella term that covers a number of different conditions. 
  • Whether as a result of usage or injury or, alternatively, an auto-immune condition, arthritis can cause a number of painful symptoms and affect the ability to move in certain ways. 
  • Exercise is so important for reducing the severity of symptoms and should be done regularly.
  • Light aerobic activities, as well as stretching and strengthening exercises such as Pilates, are the best forms of exercise for people needing arthritis care

What is arthritis?

The human body is a pretty incredible bit of machinery.

However, like all good machines, it is liable to incur a bit of damage to its well-used parts. 

Arthritis affects the joints in a number of ways that result in painful sensations and difficulty moving. 

From worn cartilage and injuries to auto-immune conditions, there are a number of reasons why arthritis occurs. 

While there isn’t a definitive cure for arthritis, the condition can, to some degree, be managed by regular exercise and mindful movement.

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What are the main types of arthritis?

According to the UK charity Versus Arthritis, around 10 million people in the UK are thought to be living with arthritis.

This refers to a number of separate conditions that cause pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. 

Here we’ll look at a few of the most common conditions known under the umbrella term as arthritis. 

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is one of the most frequently diagnosed forms of arthritis.

It can affect any joint in the body, but it is mostly seen in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and feet. 

Cartilage in these joints becomes thin and eventually causes the surface of the joint to roughen.

As a result, the joint cannot move as smoothly as it should, which causes stiffness and pain.

It is a common feature of ageing and can sometimes go undetected. 

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues. 

It causes inflammation in the joints which leads to pain and stiffness. Unlike Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis gets worse over a short time, so treating it early can help lessen symptoms. 

Gout

Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that usually affects the big toe, though can be found elsewhere in the body.

Parts of the body affected by gout become red and hot to touch. It can also cause changes to the skin, such as shininess or peeling. 

Gout is caused by an excess of urate or uric acid in the body.

Though small levels are normal, excess quantities are produced by being overweight and overeating certain types of food.

In addition to this, excessive alcohol use is also a risk factor.

An excess of urate causes crystals to form around the joint which, when disturbed, fall into the soft tissue and cause painful inflammation. 

Spondyloarthritis

Spondyloarthritis is a type of arthritis that affects the joints of the spine.

Connective tissues called entheses become inflamed which causes pain.

In Ankylosing spondylitis, this inflammation causes the production of calcium. The extra calcium causes new parts of bone to start growing in the spine. 

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a type of spondyloarthritis and an auto-immune condition. 

It can accompany the skin condition Psoriasis in which the skin develops a red, scaly rash that can be uncomfortable.

And there’s more here on the types of arthirits.

 

exercise is important

Why should you exercise with arthritis?

The benefits of exercise for in arthritis care are many.

It is one of the best ways to manage symptoms of arthritis, as it keeps joints from stiffening up.

Stay strong, flexible and mobile

Regular exercise helps your joints, muscles and bones to stay in good condition.

It allows you to feel stronger and more able to carry out activities. As well as this, regular exercise promotes joint and bone health for the future. 

Happy body, happy mind

Aside from fitness and movement, exercise also allows you to burn energy and create a bit of headspace.

It gets you away from a computer screen or off the sofa and encourages you to use your mind and body in a mutually beneficial way. 

Exercising releases endorphins which help relieve stress and pain, so it is a great way to feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

Using energy in the day will also leave you feeling tired in the evening and allow you to sleep better.

In turn, this promotes quality sleep and leaves you to wake up feeling rested and ready to go again. 

How often should you exercise with arthritis?

Everyone should aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.

While on some days this can feel impossible, remember that there are so many ways to get exercise and not all of them involve specialist equipment or tons of energy.

If 30 minutes still feels like too much sometimes, try completing 10 minutes of your chosen exercises at least three times. 

Being up on your feet, moving around is a great way to get started. You could even incorporate this into your daily routine at work or around the house. 

Try doing some mindful movements while you cook, clean, shop or work at your desk. Before you know it, you’ll naturally be moving more and feeling better.

Experiencing joint pain is never going to make you feel like you want to exercise.

However, it is really important that you do!

If pain is making you put off exercise, try setting small achievable goals such as five minutes of gentle exercises to get you started.

What kind of exercise is safe for arthritis?

Aerobic exercise

Walking

Walking is a great way to do some low impact exercise.

Whether it’s walking to the shops, around the park or on a hike, walking is a great way to get the blood pumping around your body without putting pressure on your knees like running does.

It can be a great way to explore your local area, or even act as an impetus for some great holidays and sightseeing adventures near and far.

It can be social or solitary and a great option for the whole family. 

Swimming

Swimming can be done at whatever pace or level you feel comfortable.

It has the unique addition of water which has the ability to support your body while you exercise, making it the ultimate low impact activity.

It is a great option for rehabilitative exercising as you can move and work your joints in a variety of ways, as well as getting some aerobic exercise. 

Cycling

Whether outside on a pushbike or indoors on an exercise bike, cycling is a great way to improve your joint and muscle function.

The low impact movement offers a range of motion in the knee and hip joints as well as getting you to consider your shoulders, elbows and wrists too. 

Strengthening exercises

Pilates

Pilates is a physical fitness practice that aims to strengthen, stretch and improve joint and muscle function in the body.

Even though it is a low impact exercise, pilates can make you sweat.

You can practice pilates as a beginner or an expert in a mixture of mat work and equipment classes.

It’s about understanding your body and using the right muscles for certain activities. You’ll be amazed what it can teach you. 

Yoga

Yoga can be a gentle form of exercise that is perfect for those who want to move and stretch at a slower pace.

Poses and sequences require a focus on and an awareness of your body, and how it feels and moves.

For people with arthritis, yoga is a great way to strengthen your muscles and flex your joints in a safe way.

Every exercise can be modified or supplemented, so you can create a practice that is perfectly suited to your own needs and ability.

If you want some inspiration, check out Yoga with Adriene on YouTube to get you started. 

Or you could try these morning stretches.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a mind-body practice that combines a series of slow, flowing movements with breathing and meditation.

This practice moves chi (energy) around the body and promotes a balanced and healthy system. Tai chi also improves mental health and reduces physical pain and inflammation as well as boosting the immune system.  Also, try meditation for seniors.

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Exercise for arthritis - tips to look after your joints

Before Exercise

Apply heat treatments such as hot packs or warm water in the bath or shower for 20 minutes before you exercise.

Heat helps relax the muscles and will aid movement and prevent injury. 

Warm-up with some range of motion exercises that slowly wake your muscles and joints up. 

Set a positive intention to guide you through your practice. This will help you set achievable goals for the practice both in that moment and moving forward. 

During Exercise

Go slowly and stop if you feel any unusual pain or sensations. 

Low impact exercises such as the ones in this blog are best to prevent any unnecessary strain on the joints. 

Use props like pillows, resistance bands and a mat to make your exercise as comfortable, supported and safe as possible. 

Use a guided exercise routine such as one from your doctor, physiotherapist or sports medicine professional. The NHS has also provided a Pilates workout for people with arthritis.

After Exercise

Apply cold compress after activity, especially if it causes swelling around the joints.

You can use ice treatments for up to 20 minutes after exercise, but be careful not to get too cold!

Keep a diary of exercises completed and log any changes to your condition.

Do consider how you are feeling mentally too.

There may be some days when arthritis can pose challenges to your mental health and it is important to register this and reflect on it with a friend, doctor or therapist.