7 Ways To Make Exercise Part of Your Joint Pain Routine
When you’re in pain, you likely don’t want to move. The idea of exercising when you have a chronic pain condition may feel counterintuitive, and you may be concerned that it could actually make it worse by damaging your joints and causing more friction, fatigue and muscle ache.
The opposite, however, appears to be true. Exercise is actually one of the most important treatments for osteoarthritis, because it builds up muscles so they are better able to support your joints, strengthens the joints and - if you’re incorporating stretching - tends to lead to less muscle ache and stiffness.
PLEASE NOTE: if you have not exercised in a long time, are returning to exercise after an injury or have recently seen a change in or new medication taken please consult your GP or healthcare professional before embarking on a new exercise routine.
Why is exercise so important when you have osteoarthritis?
“Multiple studies have suggested that exercise can improve pain, function and quality of life in people with osteoarthritis,” says MD and Medical Director Dr Mike Hoaglin. “Multiple mechanisms have been suggested from reducing wear, increasing repair to reducing pain sensitivity. When we tone and strengthen muscles in our core and near joints, we develop better bodily control and coordination and thus can better protect our joints. With proper technique, we may be able to overcome minor anatomic variations and develop better habits when using joints.”
Exercise helps you lose weight, can improve balance, reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase fitness - all of which are great for managing symptoms of arthritis. It is, however, important to exercise in the right way. Doing too much too soon, or using improper posture or techniques can lead to joint damage. If you’re interested in trying something new, speak to your doctor or physiotherapist first, and if you’re attending an exercise class tell the instructor about your arthritis so they can give you appropriate guidance and attention.
Now that we’ve established that exercise is important when you have osteoarthritis, the next step is to incorporate it into your regular joint pain routine! How do you do that? Read on to find out…
1. Learn proper posture and technique
“Just as a car needs to have its wheels aligned to ensure proper wear over time,” says Dr Mike Hoaglin, “the human musculoskeletal system is designed to work most efficiently starting from the so-called anatomical (or neutral) position, where the bones, muscles and joints are lined up properly. To illustrate, an adult who has a tendency to be bit bow-legged or knock-kneed when standing, walking or running, is likely going to be at increased risk for osteoarthritis in the knees and other soft tissue injuries over time if they keep using them that way. The mechanical forces on the joint and its adjacent parts will impact the articular cartilage improperly and may make the joint less stable.”
When doing physical activity, it’s important to make sure your joints are lined up, you’re spreading your weight as evenly as possible and you’re not putting unnecessary pressure on any one joint. When in doubt, consult a professional or ask for help - and listen to your body. Whilst exercise can and will be uncomfortable at times, any sharp pain or sensations which don’t feel right means you should stop and reassess.
2. Move every day
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to go jogging, hit the gym or attend a zumba class every single day - it just means incorporating more exercise and movement into your everyday life so that you’re keeping your fitness level up.
This could mean getting off the bus one stop early and walking the rest of the way, making sure to get up and walk around every 45 minutes, doing stretches while you wait for the kettle or microwave, or just doing little things every day to get your body moving and the blood flowing! Remember to be flexible, set reasonable goals for yourself and don’t worry if some days are more sedentary than others - it’s important to listen to your body and rest if that’s what you need to do - as long as you start moving again when it feels right.
3. Set goals
Setting bitesize, achievable goals is a great way to keep motivated and show yourself that you’re improving in whichever areas you want to see progress! A lot of people set weight loss goals and exercise to try to reach a specific weight, but that may not actually be the best approach if you want to incorporate exercise into your life in the long term. Weight can fluctuate, and if you’re building muscle you might actually find that the number on the scales goes up even as your clothes get looser.
The number on the scales doesn’t just calculate fat: it measures your total body weight, which includes muscle, water, and bones. If you want sustainable weight loss or weight maintenance whilst getting the benefits of exercise for the long haul, you need to exercise for the sake of the exercise - whether that’s for the endorphins, seeing yourself get stronger and fitter, and/or reaching specific goals within that type of exercise.
This could involve setting yourself a long-term goal to run 5k, and more bitesize goals around slowly reducing the amount you’re walking compared to running. Using a fitness app like Couch to 5k can help you reach your goals in a sustainable way. If running isn’t your thing, you can set yourself similar goals for other types of activity. Downloading an exercise tracker - such as an app to keep records of your exercise, or a smartwatch - can help track your progress and show how you’re improving over time, which is great for motivation!
4. Find activities you enjoy
If you want to make exercise part of your joint pain management routine, you’ll need to find things that you actually enjoy doing and want to do for a prolonged period. This doesn’t mean you have to love every minute of an activity or even that you have to be really into it to begin with, but it does have to be something you can realistically see yourself doing beyond a few days or weeks.
“Because improper technique and overdoing exercise could make osteoarthritis worse, it's important to individualise workouts with a qualified physiatrist, physical therapist or trainer,” says Dr Mike Hoaglin. “Some patients may benefit more from mind-body techniques like yoga, tai chi and Pilates, while others would benefit more from cardio or strength training.”
Take some time to think about what you enjoy doing already, or what you used to enjoy when you were younger. Did you do ballet as a child? Why not find a local class? Do you like relaxing in the pool? Swimming is an excellent strength and cardio workout and it’s gentle on the joints. Want to cultivate some body and mind harmony? Maybe yoga’s right for you. It’s also important to remember that you can customise exercises to suit your needs, and it doesn’t have to look like it might on Instagram in order to be effective.
5. Slow and steady
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and most people can’t do the splits the first time they set foot on a yoga mat. Whilst it’s a good idea to work at about 70-80% capacity and push yourself where it feels safe, going too hard too soon is probably going to be counterproductive. When you have osteoarthritis, putting a lot of strain on your body in a short amount of time could be really damaging, and if nothing else you’ll feel tired and sore and won’t be able to sustain it.
It can feel frustrating to take things slow, especially if there was a time when your body was ready to do more things - but when it comes to exercise you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you see results as long as you’re consistent and avoid injury by listening to your body.
Adults are advised to do 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling at 10 mph or equivalent - but if that’s not achievable right now, don’t panic. Just making time for 15 minutes of walking per day would add 105 minutes of moderate activity per week - which is over half way there! Make sure to warm up, cool down, follow instructions and ask or look it up online if you’re not sure how to do something safely.
6. Phone a friend
Exercising with someone else can be great for motivation. Some people find it easier to do things for other people as well as themselves, at least at first, so knowing someone is counting on you and could do with your support to meet their goals might help. Plus, being with someone else might help you expand your comfort zone and try new activities that you would be less likely to attempt on your own. Peer motivation can be really powerful, and it doesn’t have to involve people you know.
If no one immediately comes to mind, you could always join an exercise class or find a local arthritis support group in your area to find like-minded people who may have similar goals and motivations. Take a look at local facebook and meet up groups, or speak to your doctor about options in your area. There are loads of clubs, from gardening to rambling, which can help get you moving and introduce you to potential new friends.
7. Get started with simple steps today!
It’s all well and good talking about how to make exercise part of your joint pain routine - but now it’s time to do it! Why not get started today, even if it’s just one stretch? If you have knee pain, why not try out these modified exercises to help stretch your muscles and strengthen the joints? If your shoulders are causing you grief, simple crossover arm stretches, internal and external shoulder rotations and wall crawls could be a good shout.
If you’re looking for more tips, this guide to at-home exercises for arthritis could be a good place to start. You don’t need to go big - just making some simple steps in the direction you want to go in, whether that’s booking a chat with your GP, finding a local group or doing some seated stretches can help get you started on this important journey!
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