If you are suffering from arthritis, the last thing you often feel like doing is exercising. But, experts say, that's exactly what could help to ease the pain.
Not only is regular exercise the best way to prevent pain from occurring in arthritic joints in the first place, those who exercise regularly also recover faster from existing arthritic pain, says Dr. Nayan Patel, a physiatrist with the Texas Back Institute.
"I see that people will tend to decrease their exercise due to the arthritis pain and that really starts a vicious circle, because not only can it cause further joint problems, but general deconditioning leads to increased fatigue in even normal day-to-day activity. And you kind of get into a downward spiral," Patel says.
"Meanwhile, we've seen that you can actually recover quicker from arthritic pain when you exercise regularly," he adds. "And I always tell patients that even though we may not have any hard evidence that exercise can prevent arthritis onset, it can help you recover quicker and maintain function a lot longer than someone who is weaker."
Dr. Charles Weiss, clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery, says exercise triggers a process that indeed protects and helps repair joints damaged by arthritis.
"The surfaces of joints are covered with a material called articular cartilage, and the destruction of this cartilage is one of the hallmarks of virtually all types of arthritis," he says. "That surface is responsible for allowing joints to glide smoothly and painlessly, and when it breaks down, it initiates a lot of the pain and inflammation in arthritis."
Exercise, however, increases the pumping action of a fluid called synovial fluid that protects, provides nutrients and takes away waste products from the articular cartilage.
But what if your arthritic discomfort really does make exercising painful?
"What I usually recommend is to continue to do activities that don't injure the joint," says Patel. "An activity such as stationary bicycling, for example, can keep the joints active and mobile, as well as conditioning the thigh muscles to maintain their strength and protect the knee joint against further injury."
Of course, there are some exercises that should be avoided by people with arthritis. They include "high-impact exercises that put sudden sharp or very high forces across the joint, such as running and jumping," says Weiss.
Swimming is a good alternative activity, and there are lots of other good low-impact activities that keep the joint moving.
Patel says that even if exercise can't cure your arthritis, there's no question a good workout can improve your outlook. "You may still have the same amount of arthritis as anyone else, but if you can stay stronger, you can maintain your health at a better functioning level."
He offers the following additional ways in which exercise helps with arthritis:
- It keeps muscles around your joints strong;
- It keeps bone and cartilage strong and healthy;
- It improves your ability to do everyday tasks;
- It improves overall health through more energy, better sleep and weight control.
Also, your heart will be stronger, and depression can decrease.
What to do
Doctors strongly recommend the weightless environment of water as a perfect place for people with arthritis to exercise.