When your joints are painful and swollen, the last thing you probably want to do is work out. Yet, it’s precisely working out that can make a significant difference in your comfort level. Exercise is known to be able to relieve pain. Your physical activity consists of your daily tasks and leisure activities – an essential blend of movement that’s key to minimizing arthritis symptoms for almost anyone.
If you have arthritis, you can and should exercise (assuming that your doctor gives the okay). Arthritis and physical fitness are not mutually exclusive. People who exercise regularly experience less pain than those who don’t. A regular exercise program can also offer better sleep, more energy throughout the day, and a higher overall quality of life.
Some forms of arthritis are made worse with inactivity. Weak muscles, lowered pain tolerance, poor balance, and stiff joints are a few examples of the types of arthritis symptoms you can reduce with physical movement. Many exercises are safe and healthy for people dealing with chronic pain.
The Connection Between Arthritis and Exercise
Whether or not you currently have arthritis, one of the things you’ll have to deal with sooner or later as you age is determining whether or not your favorite activities are good for you in the long run. For example, if you love sports but are beginning to experience joint pain, you may wonder whether your activity of choice may be contributing to the problem.
The simple answer is that it depends on the person, the sport, and the situation. Participating in sports in and of itself cannot cause arthritis. However, some sports require repetitive movements that can lead to joint strain or injury. In general, low-impact activities with lower chances of muscle or joint injuries are safe for most people.
Joint Injuries and Arthritis
Sports may not be a direct cause of arthritis, but the injuries you sustain while playing sports can be. Runners, for example, are at risk because of the constant pounding on the knees. This action can cause wear or injury to the cartilage, and one of the long-term consequences of this type of injury is arthritis. Other sports can present the same risk, such as gymnastics or tennis.
A fracture near a joint is one of the main ways in which a sports injury might lead to arthritis. If a bone that supports cartilage around a joint breaks, the likelihood of arthritis increases. Ligament tears and pulls are also risky injuries, common in baseball players, and those who participate in other stop-and-go sports. Dislocations can have a similar impact.
Benefits of Exercise for Arthritis
If you already have arthritis, you may be wondering if you can still participate in sports or other strenuous physical activity. The answer isn’t set in stone. Everyone needs exercise, and for many people, working out is also a huge stress reliever in a chaotic world. Even individuals with arthritis can benefit greatly from participating in a regular exercise program. There are known physiological and psychological benefits associated with exercise for people with chronic joint pain.
- Physiological benefits: Regular physical activity in people with arthritis can help strengthen the muscles around the affected joints, minimize bone loss, and help control pain and swelling. Exercise replenishes joint lubrication and increases range of motion. It also boosts energy and stamina, improves sleep, and decreases fatigue. Exercise is also an important way to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Psychological benefits. Getting regular exercise is great for your state of mind. It can lower anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve your mood and overall well-being. Individuals who exercise routinely tend to have lower baseline levels of anxiety and stress. Many people find that exercise helps relieve depression, as well. Because people with arthritis are particularly vulnerable to depression, physical activity is an essential component of any complete treatment plan.
Good Exercises for Arthritis
Exercising with arthritis is all about finding the right exercises. There is no one-size-fits-all solution because everyone is different. If you haven’t yet been persuaded to get off the couch, it’s most likely simply because you haven’t found the right activity for you yet. Consider the following options – all great workouts for people living with chronic pain.
Yoga has all the hallmarks of a great exercise for someone with arthritis. It’s gentle, low-impact, and relaxing. It builds strength, balance, and flexibility. Best of all, anyone can do it. It may seem intimidating for older individuals to start practicing yoga for the first time, but in actuality, yoga is highly modifiable to suit people of all fitness levels. For example, sun salutations – a basic sequence of poses very common in yoga – can be a warmup for more challenging poses, or they can make up the entire session. Here are a few of the best poses for those with arthritis, especially those who are just starting out with yoga.
- Cobra pose. For this pose, lie on your stomach with your hands palm-down on the floor. Slowly lift your head, neck, and chest off the floor, keeping your lower body still. This pose is good for the elbows and wrists, stretches the mid-level joints, and works the muscles in the back.
- Cat cow. This is a combination of two poses. Start on your hands and knees on the floor. Try to stack your bones: hips over knees and shoulders over elbows. Inhale as you push your naval out and pull your back in, stretching your neck up. Then, exhale as you suck in your naval and arch your back up like a cat.
- Forward fold. The forward fold gives your hamstrings, ligaments – and your entire body – a wonderful stretch. It’s also highly relaxing and enjoyable. Stand upright and tall (mountain pose), and then exhale as you lean forward slowly at the hips, keeping your torso long. You don’t need to keep your knees or elbows locked tight; it’s fine to let them bend naturally. Let your head hang down, press your backside upward, and push your heels into the floor.
- Downward-facing dog. The downward-facing dog is a classic yoga pose that stretches your whole body. You can easily get into this position from a forward fold, or you can start on your hands and knees. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and walk your hands forward on the floor until your body is shaped somewhat like an upside-down V, with your spine and arms in a straight line and your legs straight, heels pressed toward the floor as far as comfortably possible. If you need to keep your knees slightly bent, that’s fine – don’t stretch past the point where your movements are pain-free.
Practicing these poses a few times a week will gradually help you feel more flexible and give your joints a wider range of motion. Over time, yoga can help with arthritis pain.
Tai chi is one of the things you may come across during your search for natural ways to reduce pain and feel better overall. Technically a martial art, tai chi is a little faster-paced than yoga, yet still gentle, low-impact, and suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Tai chi is a mind-body practice made up of a series of movements that flow together, one after the next, in continual motion. Like yoga, tai chi places a strong focus on breathing and mental health as well as the exercises themselves.
Tai chi offers mental health benefits as well as physical, both equally important. People who practice tai chi regularly often find themselves more in tune with their bodies, their abilities, and their surroundings. That may mean a lower likelihood of falls and greater enjoyment of everyday life. This martial art can also improve blood flow, increase mobility, and potentially reduce pain for people with arthritis.
Bicycling is one of the best exercises someone with arthritis can do. It’s low impact, meaning it won’t put unnecessary stress on your joints. Your muscles and joints will become more acclimated to the repetitive motion over time. Unlike running, cycling doesn’t constantly compact the joints; instead, it stretches them beneficially.
One of the nice things about bicycling for arthritis is that you can modify it to suit your lifestyle and limitations. For example, if you aren’t comfortable riding a traditional bicycle, you can choose a recumbent bike (which allows you to sit in a reclined position with firm back support and use your legs only) or an arm-powered bike (which you “pedal” with your arms – perfect for users with severe pain in their legs).
If you do want to get outside and enjoy regular cycling, here are a few tips to help ensure a great experience.
- Start slowly. Anytime you begin a new exercise program, avoid doing too much too soon. Start with a short ride around the block as you get used to the feel of pedaling and balancing. At first, stick to flat, paved paths as opposed to dirt trails or steep inclines. Increase the length, frequency, and difficulty of your rides gradually as your body allows.
- Make sure your bike is the right size. If it’s too tall, it may cause strain or injury. It’s a good idea to have a professional bike mechanic to help you choose a bike that fits you properly. They may also be able to offer advice on nearby trails and roads that are suitable for you.
- Invest in some basic gear. Cycling can be a little pricey initially, but investing in the right gear will set you up for a great experience. Recommended equipment includes a helmet, lights, gloves (in cooler weather), a mini pump and puncture repair kit, padded cycling shorts or tights, and a lock (if you’ll need to leave your bike anywhere).
If you are dealing with arthritis, the idea of jumping into the pool and swimming laps may not sound like your idea of a good time. However, swimming is actually an excellent exercise for people with joint pain. It’s low-impact and much easier on the joints than jogging or even walking. If swimming laps is too hard on your joints, other water-based activities may be helpful, such as:
- Water walking. Whether you have a backyard pool or a local rec center, walking in the water is an effective, easy, and safe workout for people with joint pain. There’s no secret to it –take your normal walking routine into the pool. You’ll reduce the impact on your joints and eliminate some of the problems associated with traditional walking, such as sweating in hot weather.
- Water aerobics. Many swimming facilities and rec centers offer water aerobics classes, which can be highly beneficial for people dealing with chronic joint pain. Usually, water aerobics are done in chest-deep water with upbeat music in a fun, relaxed environment. Water aerobics is a moderate-intensity workout that helps with joint flexibility and muscle strength – and it’s fun, low-pressure, and a good way to meet new friends.
- Find the right stroke for you. When you’re ready to step it up a notch, you can work all the joints in your body by swimming laps. A stroke such as the front crawl or the backstroke can exercise your entire body and help you build strength and endurance and fight pain and stiffness.
As with any other exercise, start slowly and build your intensity and frequency gradually. It may also be a good idea to take a lesson or two to learn proper form for optimal results.
Tips for exercising with arthritis
If you have arthritis, then you may believe that you can’t exercise – or are extremely limited in the activities you can do. People with chronic pain can actually participate in a wide variety of activities and sports. Movement is good for painful joints, so pay attention to the following tips to ensure that you are ready with answers should anyone have a question about your new routine.
- Check with your doctor first. If you would like to reap the benefits of exercising with arthritis, be sure to speak with your doctor first. Your doctor can let you know if there is any reason you shouldn’t exercise as well as give you advice on the types of exercises that will help your condition. The best exercises for you depend on the type of arthritis you have and which joints are involved. Ask your doctor for suggestions regarding an exercise plan that will provide maximum benefits with the least joint pain exacerbation.
- Don’t overdo it at first. Doing too much, too soon is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, pushing your body beyond what’s comfortable can lead to injury. Also, you may get so sore and fatigued that you are discouraged from sticking to your planned exercise program. If you haven’t been regularly physically active, do just a little at first, and build up as you feel able.
- Exercise consistently for the best results. Again, your doctor can offer advice on how often to work out. In general, however, it’s best to perform some range-of-motion exercises every day, such as walking, jogging, biking, or swimming. Low-impact exercises are best, but if you do want to participate in higher-impact activities, such as running or basketball, then avoid hard surfaces and don’t do these activities every day.
- Listen to your body. It’s always a good idea to maintain a mind-body connection when exercising, but it’s even more critical when you have a health condition such as arthritis. Pay attention to the signals your body sends you that you might be overdoing it, such as increased pain or fatigue (mild muscle soreness is a good thing when increasing your physical activity). If you need to, cut back on the number of days or amount of time you exercise.
Other Helpful Therapies for Arthritis
Along with exercise, there are several natural remedies people can try to reduce their arthritis symptoms and improve their quality of life. Some of these are:
Most people love massages. A good massage can leave you feeling wonderful for days or even weeks. However, they are especially beneficial for people with certain health conditions, such as arthritis. Several types of massage can be helpful, including:
- Shiatsu massage: A Japanese style of massage that involves applying repeated pressure to exact points on your body
- Thai massage: A relaxing, full-body massage designed to improve flexibility and circulation
- Reflexology: Great for relieving stress and pain, reflexology is about pinpointing specific areas of the body to achieve less inflammation as well as less stress
- Swedish massage: The most common type of massage, in which the therapist uses long, kneading strokes as well as lighter, rhythmic, tapping strokes.
- Trigger point massage: Trigger point massage applies vibration or pressure to myofascial trigger points – knots or areas of tension. Sometimes this massage is accompanied by injections to relieve pressure, but this type of massage should be done only in a clinical setting, such as a chiropractic care provider’s office or physical therapy.
Because much of the pain and other symptoms of arthritis tend to be caused by inflammation, heat treatments may seem counterintuitive. However, this is an extremely easy and effective way to ease your discomfort.
Heating your body improves circulation, sending vital nutrients to tender joints and muscles. It’s also a good way to warm up your body before a workout. That’s because performing a strenuous activity with cold, tight muscles is a recipe for injury. Here are a few ways to apply heat therapy to your life today:
- Use a heating pad. You can use an electric heating pad to warm specific parts of your body, such as your hands or knees. Remember to wrap your heating pad in a cloth and avoid direct contact with your skin to prevent irritation and redness.
- Soak in a hot tub. Do you have access to a hot tub or whirlpool? If so, take advantage – the hot water can be incredibly soothing. If you don’t have a hot tub you can use, you can achieve similar benefits by taking a warm bath or shower at home.
- Try sauna therapy. Sauna therapy has been used in Scandinavia for hundreds of years and is popular in other regions around the world. A sauna is typically a small, enclosed room with elevated warmth. Enjoying a sauna is good for your blood circulation, which can help transport nutrient-rich blood as well as healing oxygen throughout your body.
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