Health and Fitness for Arthritis Sufferers

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 12:08pm

By Adam Kessler, CSCS

In 2005, a study found that one-in-three adults in the United States suffers from arthritis, which translates into approximately 66 million people. Of those people, 43 million were diagnosed by a doctor, while 23 million had chronic joint symptoms (but had not been officially diagnosed). Arthritis is second only to heart disease as a cause for work disability. With so many people afflicted and no cure in sight, arthritis sufferers need to understand what they can do to alleviate their symptoms and make this disease easier to tolerate.

Two types of arthritis

There are two common types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is more common. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage surrounding the bone breaks down and wears away, which leaves the normal smooth, gliding surfaces of the bone exposed and unprotected. As a result, it is very painful to move, so a person's range of motion becomes limited. In rheumatoid arthritis, tissue inflammation leads to the destruction of the joints. Once a joint becomes affected, the inflammation continues intermittently, leading to swollen and painful joints (and potentially disfigurement of the joints). It is more common among middle-aged women and characterized by periodic flare-ups.

Exercise tips for arthritis sufferers

An exercise program for arthritis sufferers provides several benefits. It increases the range of motion so that joint and muscle elasticity is not compromised when the arthritis flares up. It also helps warm-up and loosen the joints. In my experience, arthritis sufferers can do any exercise, but they must make modifications in their exercise routine to accommodate their daily fluctuations in pain tolerance.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when putting together an exercise routine:

  • Warm up extensively. Your warm-up should be longer than usual to get the blood flowing through your joints. This will help improve your range of motion and flexibility for the main workout.
  • Exercise in moderation. You can do a total body workout, as long as you focus on proper form for the exercises chosen. You should perform each repetition at a slow controlled pace. The intensity should be moderate or 40-60% of your maximum weight (the heaviest weight you could possibly do), and you should go for high repetitions, 10-20 repetitions. The exercises should be performed at a full range of motion, to improve joint flexibility and loosening up of the joints.
  • Stretch to improve your flexibility. You should make sure that you stretch to improve your range of motion, which will keep the stress off of the joints.
  • Water workouts are a great option. If you have the ability to do cardiovascular or strength training work in a pool, then take advantage of it. The warm water will help decrease stiffness and relax your muscles, while the buoyancy will take the pressure off of your joints, as you work out in an almost pain free environment.
  • Word of caution. Use the two-hour pain rule as a guide. If you experience excess joint pain or greater-than-normal pain two hours after you have exercised, then you have over-done it and you will want to modify your workout next time. You will do this either by decreasing the exercises done, adjusting the intensity, or choosing different exercises.

Exercise is a smart choice for arthritis suffers

Exercise is not an immediate pain relief formula for arthritis, but it is a proactive solution to fighting off the deterioration of your joints. If you do nothing, you are just going to feel more and more pain with no end in sight. Sure there will be days when you can't exercise, but in the long run, the potential temporary relief you might feel, even if just for 15 minutes at a time, is certainly better than the non-stop pain you will have to live with if you do absolutely nothing.