Exercise for Arthritis

Health, Home & Family
on May 2, 2004

Swimming laps in a warm water pool, walking and stretching are a routine part of Heidi McIntyre's life. At 42, the Tucker, Ga. (pop. 26,532) resident has had arthritis for more than 25 years and knows exercise is essential for her physical and mental well-being.

"When I exercise and I have more energy, I feel better," McIntyre says. "Exercise helps me have the best quality of life I can and the endurance to do the things I really want," adds McIntyre, an avid cook and nature photographer who loves to travel. "More importantly, it gives me peace of mind because I'm doing something for myself."

One step at a time

Staying active is crucial to living well with arthritis, says Dr. Erin Arnold, a rheumatologist in Libertyville, Ill. (pop. 20,742). For all of us, exercise strengthens the muscles and tendons, she says. Together with stretching, it helps protect the joints, whether you have arthritis already, want to prevent it or slow its progression.

"Overly tight or weak muscles contribute to joint wear," Arnold explains. "Being overweight is another factor that contributes to arthritis since the extra weight wears on joints."

"While there are many medications available for controlling the pain of arthritis," Arnold says appropriate exercise has many benefits. "It can relieve pain and relieve depression associated with arthritis, she says. It also increases flexibility, improves sleep and helps keep weight in a normal range."

"It's important to talk with your doctor about an exercise plan that's right for you," Arnold says. "He or she may refer you to a physical therapist who can design one that meets your needs. She recommends exploring the exercise programs specifically designed for people with arthritis available from the Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org) or by calling (800) 207-8633.

Getting started

For people with arthritis, the key to exercise is to start slowly and pay attention to how the body responds. If you become tired or are in pain, slow down or stop. Remember to keep breathing. Your physician may recommend prescription or over-the-counter medications to allow you to maximize the benefits of exercise.

To help you stick with an exercise program, build in several types of exercise and do them on an alternating schedule. Here are some examples:

  • Water works wonders Typically done in a swimming pool where the water temperature is in the 80s, water aerobics allow you to stretch and do aerobic exercises while the water supports your body weight.
  • On the move Walking is an inexpensive, convenient form of exercise. Be sure to wear walking shoes that provide plenty of support, set a leisurely pace and start by walking five to 10 minutes a day, then build up to 20 minutes.
  • Start by riding Stationary bicycle riding or using a treadmill can ensure you stick with your fitness program, even in bad weather.
  • Look East Explore classes in tai chi or yoga that are designed for people with arthritis. Their emphasis on flexibility and balance, and the convenience of doing them on your own, allow them to complement aerobic activities.