When arthritis flares up, the last thing on your mind may be exercise. Thinking of prying open creaking joints and straightening an aching back may be enough to have you reaching for the hot pad. Turns out, avoiding exercise is one of the worst things arthritis sufferers can do. For as many reasons as those with arthritis pain have to avoid exercise, there is research to show just how powerful a treatment exercise can be.

Arthritis pain excuse #1: It takes too much time for exercise to be effective.

What the research says

A study funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) journal, Arthritis Care & Research, found that 6,000 daily steps (or more) was enough to keep those with osteoarthritis (OA) in the knee from functional limitations due to their RA. Osteoarthritis affects approximately 27 million people in the U.S., and in the knee joint it can seriously disrupt simple daily activities like climbing stairs or standing up from a seated position.

Daniel White, PT, ScD, from Sargent College at Boston University in Massachusetts, noted that this recommendation is just 60% of the commonly accepted goal of 10,000 steps a day but can yield benefits:

“Walking is an inexpensive activity and despite the common popular goal of walking 10,000 steps per day, our study finds only 6,000 steps are necessary to realize benefits. We encourage those with or at risk of knee OA to walk at least 3,000 or more steps each day, and ultimately progress to 6,000 steps daily to minimize the risk of developing difficulty with mobility.”

How to make it happen

Make small lifestyle changes to boost your step count easily. Park far away from store entrances and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Aim to add a few minutes of daily walking in the beginning. Since the goal is increased mobility in the joint, there is no need for speed. Take your time and enjoy the walk by inviting a friend or walking your dog.

Arthritis pain excuse #2: Walking doesn’t really feel like a workout, but high-impact exercise like running is really bad for arthritis.

What the research says

While it is true that those with severe arthritis may not be able to participate in high-impact exercise, activities like running may prevent the development of arthritis in the first place. Research presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) explained that data collected from 2,683 participants found that those who ran at any age were less likely to have knee pain. This result was across age and gender (56% percent of participants were female, the mean age was 64.5 and the mean BMI was 28.6).

Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, MD, MSc of Baylor College of Medicine and a lead author of the study pointed out that while running might not be for everyone, the benefits for those trying to prevent arthritis pain before it starts may want to lace up their trainers:

“This does not address the question of whether or not running is harmful to people who have pre-existing knee OA. However, in people who do not have knee OA, there is no reason to restrict participation in habitual running at any time in life from the perspective that it does not appear to be harmful to the knee joint.”

Even women with osteoporosis and mild osteoarthritis can benefit from progressive high-impact exercise.

How to make it happen

Talk to your doctor before making significant changes to your exercise regimen, especially if you have a pre-existing health condition. Then, start running gradually, just as you would if you were starting a walking program. You needn’t run a marathon the first time out. Walking before you run may be good advice, then speed up the walking a little, swinging your arms until you start to increase your pace.

Arthritis pain excuse #3: I am out of shape and overweight, and exercise is just too hard. Or, I am underweight and struggle with fatigue and muscle weakness.

What the research says

There is no doubt that starting an exercise program while overweight, underweight, or out of shape is one of the hardest things you may ever undertake, but research has shown that the more correct your body-mass index (BMI), the more arthritis symptom relief you will experience and the fewer symptoms you will have to begin with. This means that those with very high or very low BMI are both less likely to experience remission.

Susan Goodman, M.D., a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, was shocked that both low and high BMI were affected:

“What’s striking is that if you look at the BMI classifications, all the patients in the underweight or overweight categories were much less likely to achieve sustained remission compared to those with a normal BMI. Patients who were severely obese had an even lower chance of achieving sustained remission. Individuals in the highest BMI categories also had more inflammation and more pain.”

How to make it happen

Getting started is key. If you are severely over or underweight, you may struggle to stay focused and continue to exercise. In this case, try to find exercise that you enjoy, and do it with friends or a personal trainer to get some motivation and encouragement. After a long period of inactivity, your muscles may feel weak, and you may struggle with fatigue, doubt, and negative self-talk. It is imperative that you surround yourself with supportive people to increase your chances of success. Keep your eyes on the prize: less arthritis pain.

As always, before beginning any exercise, talk with your doctor. Arthritis pain can make it difficult to get started with exercise, but once you begin you may be more encouraged as your pain recedes.

What are some things that motivate you to exercise?


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