Arthritis is consistently used as a reason why people limit exercise. However, physically active individuals with arthritis are healthier, happier, and live longer than those who are inactive and unfit.
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Explore This IssueMay 2008
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Inactivity, in addition to arthritis-related problems, can result in a variety of health risks including type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. Also, with many forms of arthritis, decreased pain tolerance, weak muscles, stiff joints, and poor balance can be made worse by inactivity. For many older people with arthritis, joint and muscle changes due to aging can further complicate the matter. Therefore, for the person with arthritis, appropriate exercise is very important.
So who should exercise? The answer is everyone. Research shows that people with many forms of arthritis can participate safely in appropriate, regular exercise. It is recommended that patients start slowly with a limited number of exercises at a low intensity to help ensure safety and success with their exercise program. There are four major types of exercise that make up all comprehensive exercise programs, regardless of the level of participation. Each can have a positive effect on reducing arthritis-related pain and disability. The four major types are:
- Flexibility exercises: Both range-of-motion and stretching exercises help maintain or improve the flexibility in affected joints and surrounding muscles. This contributes to better posture, reduced risk of injuries, and improved function.
- Strengthening exercises: These more vigorous exercises are designed to work muscles a bit harder. As the muscle becomes stronger, it provides greater joint support and helps reduce impact through the painful joint. Strong muscles, which also contribute to better function, help reduce bone loss associated with inactivity, some forms of inflammatory arthritis, and the use of certain medications such as corticosteroids.
- Aerobic exercises: Also referred to as cardiorespiratory conditioning, these exercises include activities that use the large muscles of the body in a repetitive and rhythmic manner. Aerobic exercise improves heart, lung, and muscle function. For people with arthritis, this type of exercise has benefits for weight control, mood, sleep pattern, and general health.
- Body awareness: Includes activities to improve posture, balance, joint position awareness—or proprioception—coordination, and relaxation. Tai chi and yoga are examples of a recreational exercise that incorporates elements of body awareness.
Having several exercise options and locations keeps patients from becoming bored and provides alternatives on those days when getting out of the house seems impossible.
Starting a regular exercise program can be very challenging. Understanding the benefits and having the support and guidance from their rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals will help patients feel confident as they begin an exercise routine. Physical and occupational therapists can suggest exercises that are safe and individualized to a patient’s specific needs. They can also teach a patient how to monitor his or her body’s response to exercise, and how to modify an exercise routine as needed.