The “Do’s” & “Don’ts” of Exercise for People With Arthritis
If you have arthritis, exercise can be a true gamechanger for improving your day-to-day function. It’s even been called “the most effective, non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement.”
The catch-22 is that working out can seem overwhelming when you’re already suffering from joint pain. It can be tough to know where to get started, and the last thing you want to do is exacerbate your symptoms.
To learn more about the safety aspect, we consulted CA personal trainer Deanna Nosel, who specializes in working with people with arthritis (and various other conditions).
Check out our arthritis-friendly Q&A below!
How does exercise benefit those who have arthritis?
Nosel: Exercise is so, so beneficial and crucial for managing arthritis symptoms, and that can seem counterintuitive at first. You may think you need to “protect” the area that hurts. However, it’s inactivity rather than physical activity that will aggravate your joint pain and muscle stiffness.
Here’s why: Exercise is what strengthens the muscles and tissues surrounding your joints. When your joints are supported by strong muscles, there’s less pressure on them. There’s plenty of research to back this up; for instance, a recent study in Rheumatology found that strengthening the muscle groups around affected joints improved function and eased pain in people with osteoarthritis. Countless other studies show that physical activity lessens inflammation, pain and morning stiffness for those with arthritis while also helping to combat fatigue.
Of course, it’s also worth a mention that physical activity helps you achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight worsens the symptoms of arthritis and can accelerate the progression of the disease. This is even more important as we age, because we begin to naturally lose muscle mass and our metabolism slows down. The bottom line is that exercise keeps you mobile and functional, while being inactive causes your condition to deteriorate.
Are there any workouts that people with arthritis should completely avoid?
Nosel: The truth is, you’re much less limited than you may think! The most important thing is to consider your individual case of arthritis — which joints are affected? Talking to your doctor is a great way to learn about the exercises that will give you the greatest benefit, and any considerations for your type of arthritis.
Sometimes, you don’t have to completely eliminate certain types of exercise; you may just have to tailor it. If you’re taking a group fitness class, arrive early so you can introduce yourself to the instructor and let them know you have arthritis. They’ll be able to offer safe modifications for you. You also have to listen to your body; rest assured that you don’t have to do every single move offered in a class to get the benefits.
Is lifting weights considered too stressful for the joints?
Nosel: Quite the opposite — strength training is vital to helping you feel your best. As your muscles get stronger, they absorb some of the force of your movements to relieve pressure on your joints. Strength training also revs up your metabolism, which contributes to a healthy weight.
Plus, it helps to bring blood and nutrients into the joints, and remove damaged cells for better joint health. Remember, the more inactivity, the stiffer your joints get. This can also lead to bone loss, which raises the risk of osteoporosis in women. Regular joint movement, on the other hand, increases your range of motion and bone density. Strength training is great for your mood, too, which is so important for all of us during this pandemic.
By no means do you have to become a heavyweight lifter to reap these benefits! It’s all about starting slow and progressing incrementally. Two to three sessions a week can be a gamechanger. Again, talk to your doctor and/or your physical therapist before getting started. If you’re totally new to strength training, a personal trainer can help introduce you to the basics. It can also be helpful to start with bodyweight exercises or resistance bands before starting with weights. When you do incorporate weights, take it slow and start with just a few reps per exercise. Gradually increase your reps before focusing on increasing the amount of weight. You don’t want to push yourself too hard too soon!
Are HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts off-limits?
Nosel: There’s so much variety within HIIT, so it depends on your individual situation, and again, workouts can be tailored. Since HIIT is fast-paced, you don’t have as much control over your movements. So you’ll want to take things at a slower pace, because form and alignment are always most important.
If you want to do a lower body HIIT workout and don’t have damage to your lower extremities, there’s no reason you can’t do it. But if your knees and feet are your trouble spots, then you’ll want to focus your efforts elsewhere — and vice versa if your upper body is your area of concern.
Are there any other activities that are especially beneficial for those with arthritis?
Nosel: Water exercise is amazing for those with arthritis. It relieves the constant pressure that your joints are under, and even makes certain movements possible that may be painful for you on land. At CA, our warm water therapy pool is a huge hit for that reason.
Yoga is also great for flexibility and range of motion. It helps with balance and coordination, which can greatly help with everyday activities that are made difficult by arthritis flare-ups. And of course the benefits of walking can never be overstated.
The most important thing is simply to stay active, no matter what exercise/s you choose to do. People with arthritis will benefit greatly from moving their joints through a full range of motion each day, as well as adding strength training, aerobic exercise and mind-body exercises such as yoga or Tai Chi to their regimen.
Are there any special warm-up or cool-down considerations those with arthritis should keep in mind?
Nosel: Warming up before exercise is always important. But for those with arthritis, it’s even more important! Lubricating the joints first will help you feel better and move better.
It’s a good idea to first apply a moist heating pad on your arthritic joints for about 20 minutes. Make sure it’s warm, but not scalding hot. This will begin to relax your joints and muscles, and helps with endurance. Then, consider incorporating some low-impact cardio for 10 to 15 minutes, starting light and moving gently.
After your workout, ice the area for 10-15 minutes (be sure to cover the ice pack with a paper towel). You can even use a bag of frozen veggies in a pinch.
Do you have any tips for learning to listen to your body?
Nosel: There’s a difference between pain and pushing yourself through discomfort. That’s why it’s so important to start slowly and ease your joints into exercise, because you don’t always feel pain in the moment — it can be days later. It’s time to stop if you feel pain that is worse than your typical joint pain. Any sharp pain that continues after two days should be taken seriously and discussed with your doctor.
One tip for tuning into your body is to keep a journal logging the exercises that you’re doing to be mindful of the types of movements and reps, and how they make you feel. I also encourage clients to bring in the protocol that their physical therapists prescribe so that I can incorporate that into their regimen.
Personal training at CA
Enlisting the help of a personal trainer is a great way to launch a fitness regimen that’s safe and effective for your needs. At CA, we offer both in-person and virtual personal training options.
With over 30 skilled trainers to choose from, including those who specialize in working with clients with arthritis, you’re in great hands at CA. Learn more on our website.