When your joints hurt and your muscles ache, it is often tempting to kick-back and relax.
While putting one’s running shoes on and heading out the door can seem like a challenge of almost existential proportions at times, the benefits of exercise are bountiful.
Around 18.8 million people in the UK are affected by musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions such as back pain and arthritis. This accounts for 22% of the burden of ill health in the country.
The Benefits are Bountiful
Exercise keeps joints healthy and strong and can alleviate pain associated with MSK conditions including osteoarthritis. It also helps you get in shape, look and feel good about yourself, and is linked to improved self-esteem and reduced stress.
Here are some key activities that can be of great benefit to those living with joint pain and arthritis.
Swimming is a great sport for strengthening your entire body and is regarded as one of the best activities for people with arthritis.
“Water supports the arthritic joint, unweights the individual and enables them to do more than normal, while providing resistance against which one can exercise and strengthen the muscle around their joints,” explains David Vaux, Therapies Manager at Arthritis Action.
“The growing HealthTech market is providing water-based rehabilitation or OA-specific strengthening classes. Enquire at your local pool if this is available.”
The benefits of a decent walk should not be underestimated.
When we walk we compress and release the cartilage in our knees. This results in synovial fluid passing through our joints, nourishing them while getting rid of inflammatory waste products. Walking also builds denser bones and strengthens muscles.
“The pain you’re likely to feel with OA is often related to decreasing muscle strength around that joint and how much you move via activity and exercise,” explains Vaux.
“Staying more active will also help you maintain a more normal joint range of motion (ROM) than if you were less mobile.”
Follow these great tips on how to get walking with arthritis.
Cycling, like the other activities on the list, ticks all the right boxes, explains Vaux.
“It is low-impact, gets you moving, helps to strengthen joints, and can be social. Socially enjoyable interactions provide many benefits, one of which is to soothe over-aroused nervous systems, leading to less pain and increased health and wellbeing generally.”
Cycling strengthens leg muscles which can improve balance and coordination. Knee movements involved in the activity help flush fluid through joints keeping them well-lubricated, reducing stiffness and pain.
Yoga is a great way to exercise both mind and body simultaneously. It can reduce tension, while improving joint flexibility, and help build muscle strength, and improve balance.
Living with arthritis is all about keeping active. If more conventional exercises such as walking, and cycling don’t seem a good fit then don’t be afraid to switch it up.
“There is a huge consensus in pain management research that movement via activity is one of the key things you can do to manage persistent pain,” says Vaux.
“It doesn’t matter what method you choose to get active, it’s just important that you do.”
Originally developed as a martial art in 13th Century China, tai chi has garnered a global reputation as an effective form of exercise for both mind and body. Health benefits include improved coordination and flexibility, increased muscle strength, and the easing of joint pains and stiffness.
Tai Chi is often referred to as “meditation in motion”. However, the holistic benefits of the practice have lead experts at Harvard Medical School to rebrand it “medication in motion”.
Pilates has some similar health benefits to yoga but places more emphasis on core strength. Practised regularly it can result in better flexibility, strength, control and endurance.
Pilates also provides practitioners with scope to go at their own pace – ranging from gentle to more demanding exercises – and adapt routines to suit specific symptoms.
As Vaux notes, a host of activities and exercises can be adapted to fit the individual needs of people with OA. In 2019 Arthritis Action launched a national directory to help connect people with arthritis, pain, and mobility challenges with appropriate exercise and activities in their local area. It can be consulted here.