Exercise and Arthritis

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive in the clinic is ‘can I exercise even though I have arthritis?’ My answer is a resounding ‘yes, it is important to continue to move!’ There are a couple of factors that come into play when I begin to help a patient develop their personalized workout program. It is previous physical activity level, goals, and current health. While the type and frequency of exercise may change with arthritis, a personalized program can help keep you active. The benefits of exercise for those with arthritis include improving pain, function, quality of life, and mood. This will help break down the why and how to exercise with arthritis.

Start slow and easy

When beginning to exercise with arthritis, it is important to start slow and easy. You don’t want to jump into high-intensity exercise and expect there to be no issues. Some exercise is always better than no exercise, so I tend to begin a person who has done no activity at 3-5 minutes twice a day. It is important to listen to your body and adapt your exercise accordingly. That includes giving your body time to rest in between exercise days. As your body gets adjusted, you can then begin to add 10 minutes of exercise over time, until you can tolerate 30 minutes, 5-6 days a week.

Know when to modify your activity

Anyone who has arthritis knows about the good days and the bad days. Stiffness, pain, joint swelling, and fatigue can all limit your physical activity. With the right program, modifications can be made to keep you safely moving on your bad days. Some examples include walking in the water instead of on land or trying isometric exercises (tensing and relaxing the muscle without moving any surrounding joints). These more joint-friendly exercises allow you to remain active, even on days where your arthritis isn’t great. 

It can take 6-8 weeks of getting back into activity before your body isn’t as sore and painful afterward. During this time, it is important to gradually increase activity level, cycle through different types of activities, not always using the same muscles, and make sure to warm up and cool your body down each time to help with recovery.    

Choose activities that are easy on your joints

The definition of arthritis is painful inflammation and stiffness of the joints. If you perform exercises or activities that cause too much pounding to the joints, inflammation, pain, and stiffness that occurs with arthritis may become aggravated. Finding activities that allow you to move, but do not irritate the joints is important when you have arthritis. Swimming, bicycling, walking, the elliptical, yoga, pilates, and dancing are low-impact activities. A physical therapist can develop a home activity program for you that focuses on safe exercises and activities. The great thing about working with a PT is that they can include, balance training, resistance band training, and gentle stretching. 

Find places where you can exercise safely

While it is important to continue to be active, even after being diagnosed with arthritis, it is also important to do it safely. If you are just beginning to return to activity after a hiatus, an exercise group, personal trainer, or gym may be a good place to start. As you become more comfortable and increase your duration of the activity, you can do more activities independently. If you are not a gym person, make sure you exercise in well-lit, safe areas, free from obstructions or obstacles on the ground.

Physical therapists are trained to work with you wherever your starting point is. Schedule a time to sit down and discuss your goals, activity preferences, and hesitations. Collaboratively, your PT and you can create a program that is just right for you. 

Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Molly Rittberg received her master’s degree in Physical Therapy in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to receive her doctorate from Rosalind Franklin University (North Chicago) in 2009. She has since worked in an outpatient orthopedic practice where she worked with patients of all ages, injuries and disabilities. She has a wide variety of experiences including knee, ankle, foot and shoulder injuries, post-operative conditions, spinal rehabilitation and peripheral neuropathies.