Do Your Exercises Help or Hurt Your Arthritis?
It seems that part of aging is getting aches and pains for putting so many loving miles and motions on our bodies. Arthritis is a common ailment as we age. While common, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt any less. You’ve probably experienced such a flare up of arthritis and your ice packs and ibuprofen can concur.
However, most people don’t know how to really manage their arthritis which leads to further pain, injury, disuse and severely limited range of motion. These changes in our bodies due to arthritis are so insidious that you won’t even realize you’re limiting your range of motion until one day you can’t even move that limb like you want. Well, no more! Today you’ll learn what can help and can hurt your arthritis.
How To Know if What You’re Doing To Treat Your Arthritis is Good or Bad
The simple answers are: it depends and let pain be your guide. Sounds simple, but we often have a disconnect between doing something we love (golf, tennis, running) and the pain we later feel that night or the next day or two. Or we realize the cause and effect but try to ignore it because of our love for these activities.
Something to remember when it comes to exercise is to remember that arthritis affects your joints. The more the joints are taxed above a certain point they are going to be angry and let you know about it. Just for an example, let’s take running. In a study done by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), researchers found that participants running at 6 mins/mile took 1080 steps/strides on average (men less, women more).
That’s over 500 repetitions with impact on your ankles, knees and hips in just 1 mile. How many miles do you run? How many repetitions are you going to put your joints through? How much more can they take?
This is just an example. I’m not trying to dissuade you from running if that’s your sport of choice. Aerobic conditioning is great for overall health and helping manage chronic health diseases including helping manage the systemic inflammation we experience as we age. However, as we age we must be smarter about how we exercise and optimize our joints for long-term use and benefit. It’s no longer the mentality of if a little is good than more is better. Quite the opposite, the fewer the better. This isn’t just my opinion either. The ACSM again recommends that aquatic, aerobic and resistance training/conditioning be used for treatment of arthritis provided that it’s low impact. Impact is force against the ground-ie jumping or running (1).
In our younger years anything and everything worked exercise-wise. It didn’t matter. That’s not the case anymore. You’ve got to manage your rest and recovery, your inflammation, your prescriptions, injuries & ailments, etc. You can’t just expect to get everything you need from just running-if that’s your thing. You must include other activities at differing intensities and frequencies to be able to stay injury-free and running for as long as possible.
We now know that we’ve got to take care of our joints if we want them to take care of us. We need to limit the repetitions or cycles of the joints. That may mean instead of running 70 miles a week you might dial it back a little. Instead of playing 8-10 hours of tennis a week you cut it back a bit. That’s the first step.
The next step is to add in some cross-training-specifically resistance training. Resistance training (lifting weights) is phenomenal for dealing with arthritis because in most cases it provides a low impact stimulus to the joints while still improving bone density. Other benefits of lifting weights includes less repetitions on your joints, and increased performance in your activities due to increased strength and muscle. Because when lifting weights you aren’t doing literally THOUSANDS of repetitions (more like 30-40 per exercise/muscle group) you can really focus on keeping pristine form which will help ensure that you don’t get hurt. You’re also less likely suffer an arthritic flare up from what I’ve seen in working with our clients over the years.
Arthritis can act up when doing lots of repetitions, however it can act up with even very few. One strategy that we employ with our clients and that is backed up by research (2) is isometrics. Isometrics are exercises done where the muscle is working but the joints aren’t moving-it’s literally the best of both worlds. Think of pushing against a wall of a building. The building isn’t moving, but neither are you or your joints-but you are exerting force. That’s an isometric. These are used during post-operative surgeries in physical therapy sessions and we use them as ‘pre-hab’ for our clients dealing with arthritis.
If you’re still having pain (which we are trying to avoid) during a movement, you can adjust the range of motion you are using, change the plane of motion or the vector-or how the line of pull (gravity) affects the movement. I know this sounds technical, but know that if you are working with a competent professional they should know and understand these principles so they can help keep you progressing.
- ACSM’s Exercise for Older Adults, Wojtek J Chodzko-Zajko PhD 2014, pg 207
- Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation for Active Older Adults, Kevin Speer MD, 2005, pg 157