I’ve been a gym rat for the last 30 years, and have even competed in a few bodybuilding contests along the way. Over the last two years, however, I’ve noticed some pain and swelling in my right knee that came and went, but never completely went away. Kicking and screaming, I finally gave in and had x-rays taken. Yep, I have osteoarthritis. So now what?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, more than 54 million adults and 300,000 children in the United States currently have a form of doctor-diagnosed arthritis. Out of that group, 25.9 percent are women and 18.3 percent are men. There is a plethora of other joint-related diseases (e.g. gout, bursitis, tendonitis), along with injuries, that negatively impact the healthy functioning of your joints. And, according to a recent study by University of Manitoba researchers, one in two people have a lifetime risk for knee osteoarthritis.
Joints are the body’s ingenious way of allowing you to perform remarkably complex movements. You have the power to do amazing things with your body—if you have ever witnessed a Cirque du Solei performance, you know what I mean—all because you have joints.
Impaired range of motion in the joints, however, can trigger a domino effect in the development or worsening of other conditions, like obesity, osteoporosis, or sarcopenia (muscle loss). Over time, you lose muscle strength and balance, and could conceivably find yourself cast in the classic “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial.
Motion Is Medicine
The secret sauce to avoiding the nightmare of immobility is synovial fluid, which is what gives your joints a lube job. The only way to circulate it, however, is to move. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do a minimum of two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or gardening, each week; or one hour and 15 minutes each week of vigorous aerobic exercises, such as jogging or dancing.
Find Your Groove
There are many fun ways to exercise safely without exacerbating joint problems.
- Walking – For nature lovers, a walk in the park is just what the doctor ordered. Keep a good pace, and slowly increase your speed as well as distance as you gain strength and mobility. If it is more convenient to walk around your neighborhood or jump on the treadmill, you’ll still reap the benefits as well as the side effects of increased flexibility, bone mass and density, muscle strength, circulation, and endurance.
- Cycling – A stationary bike is ideal, as it puts less pressure on your knees, hips, and ankles. Depending on how you adjust your seat and the resistance, you can get a light, moderate, or vigorous aerobic workout. Start with 15 minutes and build up to a minimum of 30 minutes per session every other day. Experiment with what works best, keeping in mind that your goal is to relieve pain and improve joint function. A bicycle ride outdoors is always fun, as long as you can safely ride for at least 30 minutes in areas designated for riding.
- Weight Resistance Training – Strengthening the muscles around the affected joints results in less pain, swelling, and joint damage, as well as decreased bone loss.
- Legs and biceps: Stand holding a light dumbbell (1-5 lbs.) in each hand, feet facing forward and shoulder-width apart, palms facing each other, and elbows bent. Bend your knees and squat, slowly lowering hips (stay within a pain-free zone). Pause at the bottom, then slowly return to starting position. Perform a biceps curl, bending the elbows and slowly bringing the weights up toward shoulders and back down. Repeat this combination 10 to 15 times.
- Back and triceps: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart holding a light dumbbell in each hand. Bend forward slightly at the waist, arms hanging down toward the floor (keep your abdominals tight). Bend your elbows, bringing them up toward the ceiling while you squeeze shoulder blades together, hold. Then straighten your arms, extending your hands behind you. Stop before your elbows lock. Return to the starting position. Repeat this sequence 10 to 15 times.
- Chest and calves: Stand facing a wall that is approximately two feet away and lean forward, placing your hands on the wall at chest height. Keeping legs straight, bend your elbows and lower your upper body toward the wall into a push-up; pause, slowly straighten arms (do not lock elbows) and return to the starting position. Perform a calf raise by standing up on the balls of your feet; pause and then lower heels back down. Repeat the exercise 10 to 15 times.
When starting a new program, it’s a wise idea to work with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer to ensure proper form, and take classes at medically approved facilities. Some insurance companies offer their own programs, particularly for people over the age of 65, as well as free memberships to affiliated gyms.*
* Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program and ask for medical recommendations regarding the best type for you.
Tune In and Be Consistent
Tune in to your body’s signals so you can feel the difference between positively pushing beyond your comfort zone and the pain of injuring yourself. If it hurts, stop! It’s also important to find an activity you really enjoy, because only when you stick with a routine will you experience lasting improvements in pain reduction, range of motion, flexibility, and overall health.
If pain is keeping you from exercising, you might try walking in the pool. Water’s buoyancy reduces the impact on joints; improves cardiovascular fitness, balance, and range of motion; burns more calories than walking on land; and, a heated pool helps soothe pain. Beyond just walking, there is a wide variety of water exercise programs, such as Ai Chi (water Tai Chi), Watsu (stretching, breathing, and floating) and BackHab (for the back), that have proven highly effective. Many aquatic centers, YMCAs, and community pools have water exercise programs, and the Arthritis Foundation offers classes nationwide. Can’t swim? No problem! Aquatic exercise classes are designed for anyone, including non-swimmers. For help finding classes near you, go to https://www.arthritis.org/search/?q=Water+Exercise&g=go