Managing Arthritis Pain with Exercise

By Chris Collins, CPT, NASM

Managing Arthritis Pain with ExerciseAs counterintuitive as it may seem, engaging in regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to offset the debilitating effects of arthritis. If you currently suffer from the disease, you more than likely have heard the benefits of engaging in a regular fitness routine: weight loss, which lessens the load on weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees; improvement in overall strength, including the musculature surrounding afflicted joints; and mood elevation.

As arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States and numerous studies tout the manifold benefits of a regular exercise routine, one could draw the conclusion that there are more people suffering from arthritis exercising than ever before. After all, it’s relatively inexpensive to exercise, and you don’t have to have a ton of equipment. But that is not the case. In “Perceived Exercise Barriers, Enablers, and Benefits among Exercising and Non-Exercising Adults with Arthritis: Results from a Qualitative Study,” researchers found that arthritis sufferers exercise less than those without arthritis.

That’s not exactly mind-blowing news. If you or someone you know has the disease, you know how painful it can be to just move around. That’s why it’s vital for arthritis sufferers who are looking to lose weight or maintain range of joint motion to consult with a doctor before beginning any exercise program, and if they are looking for a trainer, to work with someone who knows about the disease and its effects on exercisers.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two most common forms of arthritis.

Osteoarthritis attacks joint cartilage, hardens the bone right below it, and forms new bone in the way of bone spurs around the joints. It most often affects the knees, hands, spine and hips and is an active disease process, causing bone-on-bone inflammation and limited range of motion.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the synovial lining of the joints thicken and collagen dissolves. During this painful process, the deteriorating joint structure can become hypermobile and unstable. Because using the affected joint is so painful, disuse leads to atrophy and the musculature surrounding the joint is further weakened. Flare-ups are cyclical and at their most intense are described as stiff, warm, and swollen.

The process can be somewhat frustrating. It hurts to exercise, yet exercise is a proven way to disrupt the cycle of pain, disuse, atrophy, and potential weight gain.

So how do you start or progress your fitness program when one of the most basic, intrinsic components of biomechanics, your joints, are compromised by a painful disease?

As mentioned above, it is imperative for anyone beginning a fitness routine to consult with their doctor. This is doubly the case for arthritis sufferers. Go over in detail what your concerns are regarding exercise. Your doctor can answer any questions you might have and fill you in on how you can expect your body to feel during sessions. Building a dialogue with your doctor on your exercise experience can help you more closely monitor your health in a positive way. If you feel pain for over an hour after a session, go see your doctor and go over your exercise program.

Also, work with a qualified trainer who knows how to work with people with arthritis. Look for trainers with accredited certifications. There are many considerations you have to take into account when working with arthritis sufferers, but a good trainer will change exercise angles using arthritic-friendly equipment such as bands, tubing, and suspension trainers to provide you with a good workout in a safe environment.

Goal-setting should be integral to the overall training program. Chances are if you have a form of arthritis, you have different goals than those who exercise without the disease. Following the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. As you begin mentally mapping how your body feels moving in space, work on moving in a measured and controlled manner throughout each exercise’s range of motion, then adding weight to stimulate strength as opposed to higher reps for muscular endurance.

Self-monitoring and constant evaluation are important components in a successful fitness regimen, but don’t beat yourself up over slow progress. The benefits of arthritis sufferers exercising far outweigh the bad. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you’ve been inactive and are looking to get in shape, going to the gym or park and walking is a perfect way to exercise. Aquatics classes are helpful too. And no matter how you think you’re doing, it’s better than nothing, and you can certainly feel good about that.

Chris Collins is a NASM certified personal trainer. Chris is also a Kentuckian and graduate of Lexington Healing Arts Academy. He joined the LiveWELL Team in December and helps to teach and motivate members on a daily basis through his depth of knowledge about fitness. Chris leads Team Training classes as well as Private and Semi-Private Training sessions with energy and care. He strives to get people moving and feeling better through exercise, recovery and good habits.


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