Exercise is an important ally in the fight against osteoarthritis (OA). This common condition sometimes referred to as degenerative joint disease, causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. You may assume exercise might make symptoms worse, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Exercise can actually help improve joint pain and range of motion. In fact, research shows that easing up on exercise is the last thing you should do when experiencing OA symptoms. The key is to choose exercises that you can comfortably perform consistently.
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What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis?
The primary symptom of this type of arthritis, which is the most common chronic condition of the joints, is pain and limited range of motion. In fact, OA is frequently called the “wear and tear” arthritis, because it occurs when cartilage in the joints wears away over time. Although OA is usually associated with increasing age, many people first experience symptoms in their 20s and 30s. Sure, the stiffness and pain associated with OA can make physical activity uncomfortable. Fortunately, though, there are ways that you can both improve your joint function and continue your workout.
How can exercise help improve symptoms?
Research shows that one of the most effective ways to reduce wear and tear on your joints is to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, with each pound of excess weight you lose, there’s a four-fold decrease in the load on your joints. If you’re overweight, you should work towards an attainable weight loss goal, utilizing both diet modification and exercise. Reaching your optimal body weight will make a significant impact on how well your joints tolerate exercise. Don’t be discouraged, though. Even the loss of a few extra pounds can greatly ease up the force on your joints.
Research on OA and exercise has found that a progressive fitness program may be one of the most important factors for managing joint pain. If your joint pain makes high impact activities, like running, too painful, switch to lower impact activities such as biking, swimming, or using stationary cardio equipment. It can also help to mix up your routine by doing a weight-bearing exercise, like walking, one day and a non-weight-bearing exercise, like swimming, the next.
Switching back and forth between different types of activity helps to avoid joint overuse, which is common with the repetition of just one type of movement.
Best Activities for Improving Joint Mobility
Tai Chi and yoga can help improve balance and strengthen the muscles that support the knee and hip joints.
If you have moderate to severe joint pain, exercising in water is an excellent choice. When moving in water, there’s less stress exerted on your joints, and the warm temperature can aid in increasing your range of motion.
Stretching is a great way to both improve joint range of motion and ease up tight muscles guarding the joint. Make sure to incorporate a static stretching session after every workout to ease post-exercise tightness.
Range of Motion Exercises
If your healthcare provider has diagnosed you with OA, visit with a physical therapist. He or she can provide you with targeted exercises that can make a big difference in your symptoms and help slow their progression. Linda Rewey, a licensed physical therapist assistant, uses specific OA exercises to strengthen and increase the range of motion in her clients.
Here’s one of her favorite exercises for the knees:
- Sit on the floor with both legs out straight, and stabilize your body by placing your hands on each side on the floor.
- Slide one foot towards the buttocks to reach full flexion range of motion of the knee (knee bent and foot near buttock) and hold for five seconds.
- Slowly straighten out your leg until straight and press the knee down into the ground; hold for five seconds.
- Repeat and switch legs after five to ten repetitions.
It may come as a surprise, but exercise can greatly help to alleviate symptoms of osteoarthritis. Remember to try low-impact activities in a wide range of categories.
Catherine Cram is an exercise physiologist and a leading expert in the field of maternal fitness. Her consulting company, “Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness” specializes in providing the most current maternal exercise information and continuing education courses to health and fitness professionals.