It doesn’t make much sense when your body is already stiff and/or sore, but exercise is the best non-medical treatment there is for osteoarthritis. Although I am fairly new to the world of degenerative joint disease, I am quickly learning what works and doesn’t work for my body and the more I listen to what my body needs, the better I feel.
Maybe you feel like it’s enough of a challenge to get off of the couch to have some food or go to the bathroom, but if you pay close attention to your body’s cues you may learn how to exercise with osteoarthritis and feel better, not worse.
All of us are different and our needs vary. If you have not talked with your doctor or physical therapist about exercising with osteoarthritis, I urge you to do so. Physical therapy made a huge difference for me in that my therapist was able to apply heat and manipulate my neck and shoulder to relieve pain that had tormented me off an on (mostly on) for more than thirty years! She also taught me some strengthening exercises that greatly reduced my pain and enabled me to do tasks that had been causing me much grief in the past. Without that, I would not be able to sit here long enough to type this article. Pushing myself through it in the past would cause me be numb and in pain for days!
As you read this article, keep in mind that I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or authority on osteoarthritis; I am merely sharing my own experience in hopes that it will help you in some way.
Know your own body
Soon after I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, I started paying more attention to my body. I wanted to know if there were specific activities that made the various parts of my body ache and if so, what they were. This was emotionally draining as I began to see the connections between my activity and my pain which caused me to realize that I had been suffering for many years with osteoarthritis.
Denial is an amazing thing! While I was busy getting my body in shape for my upcoming hiking adventure, it was easy to rationalize the things people were saying to me:
“Theresa, you are limping. What’s up?” (I heard that SO much and from many sources. Honestly, most of the time, I was not aware that I was limping until someone pointed it out.)
“I have noticed that you lean to the right when you are walking.” (I hadn’t until she mentioned it; she was right.)
Here are some things that I discovered:
- When I carry something moderately heavy, such as groceries, books, or even a stack of dishes, it puts stress on my hip and knees.
- Carrying something heavy on one side or twisting a certain way triggers sciatica and I lose control over my right leg as pain shoots from my hip to my ankle.
- Gripping anything for more than a few minutes causes my neck and shoulders hurt and my arm and fingers go numb.
- Sleeping on my side makes my neck and shoulders hurt and my fingers go numb.
- Walking up a steep hill means that it will hurt to drive the next day or two.
Get the idea? I could say more but the purpose of this article is to tell you how to exercise with osteoarthritis, not to vent about my aches and pains. My point is that I lived with these symptoms for years before I finally went to the doctor and began to admit that maybe there was something wrong. I had become a master at rationalizing everything away.
“Oh, it must be the new exercise video I started using or maybe it’s because I wore different shoes, or maybe I just need some chocolate.”
Pay attention to your body and find out what works for you. Keep a journal if that helps and record your activity as well as what hurts and what feels good. (I was amazed to find out that after painting my living room, I was unusually flexible for the next day or two.)
It is probably not a good idea to pick one thing and only do that one thing. Walking is an absolutely wonderful exercise, but for most of us, a little variety is better. A mixture of these should be helpful:
Stretching increases our range of motion, keeps us from stiffening up, helps us to be more flexible, relieves pain and makes other exercises easier to do. It’s good to stretch throughout the day and after other exercises.
Strength training builds muscles that help protect our painful joints. Even the simple exercises my physical therapist taught me have made a huge difference! I have read that it increases the lubrication to cartilage, but I don’t know if that’s true.
Aerobics is good for our hearts, minds, and bodies. It aids in weight loss which puts less stress on our joints. It can be fun once you figure out what you like and it does not need to be nor should it be painful. Ultimately, we want to do aerobic exercise for 150 minutes per week, which breaks down to five 30-minute workouts.
Don’t overdo it.
- Ten minutes, three times each day of aerobic activity is as beneficial as one 30-minute workout.
- It may be helpful to exercise different ways on different days. Perhaps walking on some days, using an exercise video on others.
- Pay attention to your body’s signals! I cannot stress this enough. A little pain is normal, but if walking uphill makes your legs ache substantially more and for several days stop walking up hills! (I’m speaking to myself.)
- If you find that aerobic exercise hurts, you may benefit from low-impact exercise in a heated swimming pool.
Enjoy what you are doing
Exercise can be fun! Some of us would rather exercise alone while others enjoy the social aspect of group activity. Maybe dancing is your thing or walking a dog. Nature walks work well for me and I find that they relax me and keep depression at bay. I also enjoy gently walking in gardens or museums. Maybe you prefer malls. Whatever it is, find it and you will hardly know that you are exercising!
Some exercise options you may not have thought of.
Yoga is very popular and has emotional benefits as well as physical ones. Most communities offer classes or there are videos online or at your library. Remember to start slowly and listen to your body.
Tai Chi originated in China and benefits our minds, bodies, and spirits. It consists of a series of slow movements performed with a great deal of focus and mindful breathing.
Walking is beneficial because it doesn’t cost anything, can be worked naturally into our day, and works well socially or independently. Too hard on your joints? Try pole walking. I find a treadmill useful because it enables me to exercise in short spurts.
Water aerobics are more gentle than traditional aerobics and classes are available in most communities. Your doctor may be able to recommend a local class for you.
Dance lessons can be lots of fun, especially if you are a more social type.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid foods that cause inflammation.
- Get enough rest.
Exercising with osteoarthritis helps to relieve pain, gives us a mental boost, and can be fun! Listen to your body and find out what works for you. Make sure that you keep your doctor in the loop.
How about you? What has or has not worked for you? Your comments below may help or encourage other people in their quest to live well with osteoarthritis. Please feel free to recommend topics for future articles. I love to hear from my readers!