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Exercising with arthritis

Mar 16, 2012, 6 a.m.

Starting an exercise program can be challenging for those who have arthritis. Joints can get very painful and many would just rather take their medication and try to forget the pain. Exercise for people with arthritis can seem like a Catch-22, where the means doesn't seem to justify the end. Moving a joint too much can hurt, but failing to move it at all increases the chance of stiffness and can reduce a sufferer's range of motion making even every day tasks more difficult. Not exercising can lead to increased stiffness, weight gain, and even added discomfort. The good news is that exercise for people with arthritis is possible and achievable.

Exercise for people with arthritis should include range of motion, strengthening, and endurance activities. These can help decrease pain and protect joints from further damage. People with arthritis are far from immune to universal benefits to exercise, such as increased endurance and stronger cardiovascular health, increased strength and flexibility, better joint movement, and stronger bone and cartilage tissue.

Range of motion exercises can be one of the most difficult, but important components of exercising with arthritis. Gentle forms of yoga, such as Hatha Yoga, as well as more dynamic stretching techniques like Tai Chi are excellent choices when it comes to combining exercise and arthritis. Tai Chi offers a more fluid movement than traditional stretches which may be helpful in decreasing pain. It is tempting to keep joints bent in order to limit discomfort, but doing so risks limiting mobility, and daily activities can become increasingly difficult. If it's been a while since attempting these stretches, help from a physical therapist or a trainer specializing in arthritis can help to decide how to push exercise limits safely in order to increase flexibility and provide a good foundation for strength training.

When working on strength training many people begin with isometric exercises such as a plank bridge or a hip or leg extension exercise, which strengthen muscle groups by alternating flexing muscles and relaxation. For some, hydrotherapy -- or working out in a pool -- is also a good option, as the buoyancy of the water allows for resistance training without putting extra pressure on the joints.

In order to increase endurance, people with arthritis should incorporate aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, into their routines as well. These exercises elevate the heart rate and increase oxygen levels to the heart and lungs. Those new to aerobic activity should start slow, about 10 to 15 minutes three times a week and gradually work towards 30 minute intervals. Many aerobic activities also help build strength and also burn calories for help with weight management.

While exercise and arthritis may seem intimidating for some, taking small steps or working with a physical therapist or trainer can go a long way towards overall strength, pain management, and mobility.

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