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Can You Exercise With Osteoarthritis?

Updated on June 22, 2016

Before I start this article, I want to give the disclaimer that I am not a trained personal trainer, physical therapist, or exercise professional of any kind, but I do have four years of experience of exercising with arthritis.

Since I developed arthritis in my spine, I have maintained a love/hate relationship with exercise. On one hand, exercise and sports contributed to the development of my arthritis, while on the other, I love pushing my physical limits and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.

Exercising With Arthritis

For about a year and half after I hurt my back, I was afraid to exercise because I had a tremendous fear of making my condition worse and exacerbating the pain. Although my initial fear of exercise might seem dramatic, a lot of people with chronic physical conditions have some form of anxiety towards physical activity.

Why would a person whose body hurts tremendously when they move start moving it even more? The health benefits of exercise for osteoarthritis are well-documented and exercise is still encouraged for people living with osteoarthritis (OA).

Sometimes the hardest part is simply starting the exercise regimen. I realize it is a lot easier said than done to exercise with arthritis, so here are a few pieces of advice I have learned in my experiences.

Why would a person whose body hurts tremendously when they move start moving it even more?

Low-Impact Exercises Are Your Friend

If you are unsure of where to start, the low-impact exercises are the best place to begin. These include biking, swimming, walking, elliptical machines and stretching.

The idea behind low-impact exercises is they don’t put excessive amounts of stress on the arthritic joint, while still allowing a person to be active. My low-impact exercise of choice is the recumbent bike — it’s the only one I can do for prolonged periods of time without it irritating my spine.

Neutralize the Joint

What does this mean, especially for someone like myself who has arthritis in multiple levels of their spine? Let me explain this through my own experience with joint neutral exercises.

Before I developed arthritis, I loved weightlifting. After developing arthritis I gave up on it because I figured if I had trouble carrying a jug of milk while upright, how could I ever exercise with anything heavier than that?

My brother-in-law, a former power-lifter, got me thinking about how a lot of the exercises at the gym are done laying down (like bench press), or how they can be adjusted for it to happen while laying down.

So I am the person at the gym you’ll see laying down the entire time while weightlifting. I get a great workout of a variety of muscle groups without putting my spine at risk for further damage.

Similarly, if a person has arthritis in their hip, squats probably aren’t in your future, but many exercises can be done without using your hip. This all may seem obvious, but for some people with arthritis, there is an inherent fear of creating further damage and pain in another part of the body.

The neutralization technique is not a cure-all and there are some exercises I just simply can’t do while laying down, like squats or deadlifts. However, this method of exercise has allowed me to continue being active and prevent me from irritating my spine.

Examples of Low-Impact Exercises

Camel/cat stretch
Light weight lifting
Hamstring stretch
Water aerobics
Hand stretch
Tai Chi

Careful Trial and Error

If you search for “exercise” and “arthritis” online you will get a mind-numbing amount of suggestions and articles about what exercises to do, how they will “cure you,” and how to do them.

So with so many possible exercises thrown your way, how do you decide? For me, it involved a lot of painful trial and error.

Three years ago I read a persuasive article that detailed the effects of swimming on the back and how it was wonderful for people with osteoarthritis. Convinced about the powers of swimming, I went to the pool the next day and gave it my all for about two hours.

I could hardly get out of bed for the next week due to the tremendous pain I was in. Turns out the twisting motion of freestyle swimming can be difficult for people with my condition!

The point of this anecdotal story is you simply won’t know which exercises aren’t for you until you try. Even if two people have arthritis in the same joint, their tolerance for various exercises can be different.

A careful trial and error approach is needed to figure which exercise is suitable for you. One way to proceed with caution is to start off slow and with small time intervals. I should have started swimming at a slow rate and increased the intensity as tolerated.

Do as Much as Tolerable

Ultimately, only you can decide what level of physical activity is tolerable. For some, it could entail pushing through and doing triathlons. For others, this may mean simply walking around the home — everybody is different!

You will at some point hear about some amazing person who can run marathons with no ligaments or cartilage left in their knee — and that is wonderful. But only you can determine how much exercise and intensity of activity your body is able tolerate.

There could be some level of discomfort felt while exercising, even with low-impact exercises, and only you can determine if that is a tolerable amount to integrate the exercise into your regimen.

Ultimately, only you can decide what level of physical activity is tolerable.

Be Careful

This one seems like the most obvious of all my suggestions. Who wouldn’t you be careful while exercising with osteoarthritis?

Well, even despite my advice and your logic, it can still be easy to get carried away with exercise. A lot of times certain exercises may not hurt while doing them, but you’ll feel the irritation and inflammation of the joints in the days following.

Make sure to take it slow and be mindful of your ergonomic position. Going back to my previous point, if you have never engaged in a specific exercise before, the safest way to start is start at a low intensity and duration and increase only if it is tolerated.

I would also recommend consulting your physician if you are unsure about starting a new exercise program or specific exercise. You can also seek the advice of a certified physical therapist for advice on which exercises are safe and recommended for a person with your type of osteoarthritis.

Living Your Best Despite Chronic Illness

OA and Exercise: In Summary

  • Although the many benefits of exercise are well-known, it can still be difficult for people with arthritis to exercise. This is partly due to fear of exacerbating the pain already felt in the body and mental block that exercise is less appealing with arthritis.
  • These obstacles can be overcome! Try low-impact aerobic exercises, neutralizing the arthritic joint(s), and carefully increasing the intensity and duration of the exercise as tolerated.
  • In my journey with living with arthritis, I have had to relearn what exercises engage me physically but are also bearable. Although there are exceptions, most people with arthritis can exercise with the proper accommodations and patriciate in this important facet of a healthy lifestyle.

Written by Ali Esfahani


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