To patients with joint pain, exercise may sound counterintuitive, but the truth is it’s beneficial. Exercise, in conjunction with an approved treatment plan, can help relieve pain symptoms caused by conditions such as arthritis. Exercise can strengthen your muscles and bones, help with weight management, and improve your balance, to name a few benefits.
To approach an exercise regimen in the presence of arthritis pain, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends following “S.M.A.R.T.” tips:
- Start low, go slow
- Modify activity when arthritis symptoms increase, try to stay active
- Activities should be “joint friendly”
- Recognize safe places and ways to be active
- Talk to a health professional or certified exercise specialist
Start low, go slow
It’s important to gradually introduce exercise into your routine and listen to how the body responds/tolerates it. The CDC suggests beginning with a small amount of time and then gradually increasing it—for instance, starting out with three to five minutes a day, twice a day, and adding on ten minutes a day over time.
Modify activity when arthritis symptoms increase, try to stay active
Symptoms may come and go, and some days will be better than others. On more challenging days, modify your activity as needed, but try to include as much activity as possible without aggravating your symptoms.
Activities should be “joint friendly”
Stick to low-impact exercises like walking, bicycling, water aerobics, or dancing to avoid putting undue stress on your joints.
Recognize safe places and ways to be active
If you’re new to being active and not sure how to begin a program, an exercise class may be a safe way to start. If exercising alone, choose safe areas; for instance, if you’re walking, do so in an area that is well-lit, not heavily obstructed, and away from traffic.
Talk to a health professional or certified exercise specialist
Your doctor or an expert in exercise are both great resources to answer any of your questions about activity, such as how much is the right amount for you and what to do based on your individual goals.
Types of Exercise
The CDC guidelines suggest incorporating four different activity types into your routine, all of which have different benefits: low-impact aerobic activities, muscle-strengthening exercises, flexibility exercises, and balance exercises.
Low-impact aerobic activities do not place any undue stress on the joint. Examples include brisk walking, cycling, swimming, water aerobics, light gardening, group exercise classes, and dancing.
Muscle-strengthening exercises can be done at home, in a group class, or at a fitness center. Such exercises include lifting weights, working with resistance bands, and yoga.
Flexibility exercises can help with range of motion, which will help make daily tasks and hobbies easier. Stretching and yoga are good examples of flexibility exercises.
Balance exercises are beneficial for patients with difficulty walking or who are have a high risk for falls. These should be done at least three times per week. Walking backwards, standing on one foot, and tai chi are all examples of balance exercises; many group exercise classes, like yoga, also include balance exercises
Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released its updated Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans for the first time in a decade. HHS recommends the same exercise guidelines for adults, older adults, and adults with disabilities/chronic diseases, if possible. In adults, any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity provides more health benefits than being sedentary; the HHS notes, “Some physical activity is better than none.” Each week, adults should aim for at least 2.5 to five hours of moderate-intensity, 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity, or “an equivalent combination” of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise. Exceeding the recommended times is advantageous. In addition, adults should participate in moderately intense or greater muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.
- Water walking
- Water aerobics
- Bocce ball
- Treadmill walking
- Walking outdoors
- Cross-country skiing
- Elliptical machine
- Tai chi
To a certain degree, pain is a common side effect when starting a new exercise regimen. It could take as long as two months for your body and joints to adjust. In the long-term, following through with your suggested exercise program will reduce your chronic pain.
The CDC gives several recommendations for pain management during and after exercise:
- Make modifications in the beginning, such as exercising fewer days per week or fewer minutes per session
- Switch to exercises that put less pressure on the joints (e.g., from walking to water aerobics)
- Be sure to include a proper warm-up and cool-down routine in your exercise plan
- Keep your pace comfortable while exercising
- Wear comfortable shoes