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When pain strikes, it’s human nature to avoid doing things that aggravate it. That’s certainly the case for people with arthritis, many of whom tend to avoid exercise when a hip, knee, ankle or other joint hurts. Although that strategy seems to make sense, it may harm more than help.
Taking a walk on most days of the week can actually ease arthritis pain and improve other symptoms. It’s also good for the heart, brain, and every other part of the body.
A national survey conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that more than half of people with arthritis (53%) didn’t walk at all for exercise, and 66% stepped out for less than 90 minutes a week. Only 23% meet the current recommendation for activity—walking for at least 150 minutes a week. Delaware had the highest percentage of regular walkers (31%) while Louisiana had the lowest (16%). When the CDC tallied walking for less than 90 minutes a week, Tennessee led the list, with 76% not walking that much per week, compared to 59% in the District of Columbia.
The findings were published in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, one of its contributions to Arthritis Awareness Month.
Walking is good exercise for people with arthritis, but it isn’t the only one. A review of the benefits of exercise for people with osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) found that strength training, water-based exercise, and balance therapy were the most helpful for reducing pain and improving function. “Swimming or bicycling tend to be better tolerated than other types of exercise among individuals with arthritis in the hips or knees,” says rheumatologist Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Exercise programs aim to help people with arthritis:
- increase the range of motion in the affected joint
- strengthen muscles
- build endurance
- improve balance
You can create an exercise program of your own, with help from a trusted doctor, nurse, or physical therapist. Or you can try one that’s been developed by arthritis experts. Examples include the Fit and Strong! program from the University of Illinois at Chicago, or one of several programs developed by the Arthritis Foundation: its Exercise Program, Walk with Ease program, or Aquatics program.
The fatigue, pain, and stiffness caused by many types of arthritis present a barrier to exercise—but these are the same symptoms that tend to improve with regular exercise.
If you have arthritis and don’t currently exercise, start slow. Take a five-minute stroll around your block, swim, or workout on an exercise bicycle. Do it every day, and then gradually increase the time spent exercising or how hard you exercise, but not both at once. If you have heart disease or other health issues, check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.
“If exercise was a newly developed medicine, it would be a blockbuster,” says Dr. Shmerling. “It has an excellent safety profile, and enormous benefits for people with arthritis, heart disease, and a long and growing list of other health problems.”