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Arthritis calls for moderation when exercising

  • Cox Newspapers
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, at 6:59 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, at 6:59 a.m.

For people with arthritis, aches and pains can make movement difficult, which in turn affects how to get proper exercise.

With arthritis, the cartilage that normally cushions the joints is broken down, eventually leading to restricted movement. Treatment depends on the type of arthritis diagnosed and may include medications, heat or cold applied to the affected area or physical therapy.

Research has shown that physical activity can help alleviate some of the pain and discomfort associated with arthritis. One study at Tufts University found that people with severe rheumatoid arthritis could safely increase their strength with a modest weight-training program. Participants exercised for 12 weeks and increased strength by roughly 60 percent. At the end of the study, nearly all participants said they felt less pain and were able to walk farther and move more freely.

General guidelines:

A well-rounded exercise program generally consists of a warm-up and a cool-down, gentle stretching, light-weight resistance exercises for muscle strengthening, and low-impact aerobic exercise. Start out slowly with small amounts of activity and low levels of resistance. Increase intensity only slightly as you become stronger. If an activity causes pain, stop immediately. You may initially need to try several activities to find one that is suitable.

Water exercise such as swimming laps or aqua-aerobics is joint-friendly and is often recommended for those with arthritis. A typical program targets all of the major muscle groups including the legs, chest, back and shoulders. Push-ups, arm circles, leg lifts and other resistance exercises using surgical tubing or elastic bands can be used.

Allow one or two days to elapse before performing the same resistance training exercise. Pace should be slow and controlled. To avoid accidentally overtraining, even if a weight seems too light, try it for a couple of workouts before increasing. To start, one to two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions per exercise is sufficient.

Stretching helps to keep joints mobile and can be very helpful for those with arthritis. Perform stretches gently, and only after you have warmed up, such as walking for a few minutes. After working out, take time to cool down by doing another few minutes of cardiovascular activity, then stretch again.

When it comes to aerobic activity, low to no impact is best. Activities that place minimal stress on joints include biking, swimming and walking.

The frequency, duration and intensity of exercise can vary greatly depending on the severity of arthritis, making it important to get doctors’ clearance before beginning an exercise program. Remember to listen to your body and monitor signs of overtraining, including chronic fatigue or weakness, increased pain or swelling, or any other negative response.

Marjie Gilliam is a personal trainer and fitness consultant.

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