Low-impact exercises that can ease your arthritis pain

Editor’s Note: Consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program. Stop immediately if you experience pain.


Are you lucky enough not to have arthritis? Don’t celebrate yet. Nearly a quarter of adults in the United States have arthritis, or about 58.5 million people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than half of these people are between the ages of 18 and 64 and in the prime of their working lives, making this disease particularly devastating. The financial toll of such ubiquitous arthritis: more than $300 billion in lost income and medical care each year, the CDC says.

There are dozens of different types of arthritis and related diseases, but the most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, gout, and lupus. All of them can cause joint stiffness, pain, and swelling. Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus can also affect multiple organs.

According to the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance, the CDC and other groups, low-impact exercise is one of the most important ways to manage arthritis pain and symptoms. This type of routine activity is effective and accessible, and it’s never too late to start.

Walking, cycling, and swimming are often cited as great low-impact exercises for people with arthritis. “I often recommend water therapy if you have access to a pool,” says Dr. Alexander Atkinson, a family medicine doctor at Novant Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Whether you’re hiking, swimming, or doing water aerobics, it’s my No. 1 recommendation.”

If you’re not a fan of the water, that’s fine. The best exercise for you is the one you enjoy doing the most, Atkinson said. Fortunately, you have so many choices. In addition to walking, cycling and water exercises, you can dance, garden, play shuffleboard or jeu de boules, cross-country ski or use elliptical trainers. Exercise programs that focus more on flexibility, balance and strength are also important. Think of yoga, tai chi and Pilates.

Pilates is one of the most effective forms of exercise for arthritis and general injury rehabilitation, says Melissa Bentivoglio, co-founder and CEO of Frame Fitness in Miami, a platform that delivers Pilates workouts on a custom reformer device.

“In Pilates, all movement comes from your core,” Bentivoglio said. “Even if you isolate your legs or arm muscles, you are still using your central core muscles to initiate all movements, using the stability of these muscles to ensure that the rest of the body remains properly aligned. This helps prevent injuries, protects your joints as you perform each exercise and improves strength, flexibility and balance.

While Pilates can be done using a mat or reformer, Bentivoglio said using the reformer keeps the entire body aligned during exercise while relieving pressure on the joints.

Pilates is one of the most effective forms of exercise for arthritis and general injury rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, many arthritis patients are hesitant to exercise because they may find it painful at first, Atkinson said, especially if they haven’t gotten into the habit of exercising.

“We give patients the idea that they should walk for 30 minutes a day, but that’s not fair to them if they don’t exercise regularly,” he said. “They should build it up by starting with five minutes of walking a day, then building up to 10, then 20 and then maybe adding the gym. You should never go all out.”

But sometimes it’s the regular exercisers who struggle the most with arthritis, as they may not want to give up a favorite sport or cut back on participation. Think of the lifelong runner with knee osteoarthritis who fails to box the running shoes.

“Those are some of the most challenging patients,” Atkinson said. “I don’t know if running on an osteoarthritic knee will lead to an earlier knee replacement, but their pain will get progressively worse and it will limit their function so they can’t walk as well the next day.”

Paying attention to how you feel during and after a particular exercise will tell you if it’s good for your body or if you’ve done too much, experts said. If your arthritis symptoms increase after exercise, adjust or change your activity, but try to keep moving.

Yoga and tai chi are among the exercise programs aimed at increasing flexibility, balance and strength.

Also keep in mind that if you start a new physical activity, it’s normal to have some pain, stiffness, and swelling afterwards. According to the CDC, it can take six to eight weeks for your body to acclimate. Once it does, however, you should enjoy some degree of long-term pain relief.

“In Pilates, we often quote the founder of the practice, Joseph Pilates, who said, ‘In 10 sessions you’ll feel better, in 20 you’ll look better, and in 30 you’ll have a whole new body,'” Bentivoglio said.

It’s also important to choose an exercise that fits your goals. If arthritis hinders your flexibility, strength, and balance, try yoga, Pilates, or tai chi, all of which target these issues. If you have trouble climbing stairs, it’s best to do exercises to strengthen your quadriceps. To deal with overall stiffness and pain, opt for walking, cycling, or swimming.

Don’t assume you’re free to lounge on the couch if you don’t have arthritis or a mild case that causes little pain or dysfunction. “Exercise may be able to prevent or delay arthritis,” Atkinson said. “If you’re not active and exercising, you should be.”

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Low-impact exercises that can ease your arthritis pain

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