The most counter-intuitive way to fight arthritis pain
If you live with arthritis, the first few minutes of your day can be agonizing. The aches, pains and stiffness in your hips, legs and feet when you walk down the stairs. The throbbing pain in your wrists and fingers as you grasp your cup of coffee. The stiffness and aches in your neck and back when you change your clothes. If that weren’t bad enough there’s the stress that comes with living with this pain throughout the day.
For many folks with arthritis, just these basic motions are difficult, and the last thing anyone wants to do when they’re in pain is exercise. But I’m here to tell you that exercise isn’t impossible, but rather it’s the single best natural remedy for your arthritis pain. Indeed, regular exercise can strengthen your bones and the ligaments holding them together, reducing your arthritis symptoms. If you feel like arthritis is holding you back, these simple exercises may be just the “medicine” you need to conquer your arthritis pain.
How Arthritis Affects Your Joints
There are more than 100 types of arthritis, and more than 50 million adults suffer from one or more forms. If you have arthritis then you’re well aware of the symptoms: swelling, pain, and stiffness. You know they can fluctuate daily from mild to severe. And you know there’s a good chance your arthritis pain will increase over time.
Taking over-the-counter or prescription painkillers can temporarily put a lid on the pain and swelling, but it doesn’t slow down the progression of the disease. If anything, a medication-only approach to arthritis can result in more pain and swelling because pills don’t stop your bones and muscles from weakening over time. As your bone density decreases and your muscles atrophy, your arthritis pain will intensify. This is a dangerous path that can lead to more or stronger painkillers—even surgery.
Only exercise can stem pain and prevent the pain progression that’s typical as arthritis progresses. Here’s how…
How Exercise Improves Joint Health
Your bones and muscles are comprised of millions of cells each. Your body is in a constant state of shedding and regenerating cells. But sometime in your 30s or 40s, your body began regenerating these cells at a slower rate than during your younger years. As a result, your muscles shrink and your bones become weaker. Your body needs help regenerating these cells to prevent loss of bone and muscle mass.
Exercise does exactly that. It not only regenerates cells, it regenerates better cells. As a result, your bones become denser and your muscles and tissues become stronger. That includes the muscles and ligaments around your major joints – knees, shoulders, wrists, knuckles, ankles, elbows and more. This is the key to stemming arthritic pain.
Of course, exercise does so much more, including:
- Gives you more energy throughout the day
- Helps you sleep better
- Helps you control your weight
- Relieves stress
- Improves your overall balance
Simply put, when you don’t exercise, your arthritis pain will get worse. It’s a viscous cycle. Taking the first few steps to break it can seem difficult. So let’s make some simple plans to get you moving one step at a time.
How to Start Exercising Away Your Arthritis Today
When considering starting an exercise plan many arthritis sufferers often wonder: “How can I even start exercising if my joints hurt so bad?” It’s a great question and the answer is a surprisingly simple one: Start with easy, low-impact exercises and gradually increase the duration and intensity of those exercises.
“Low-impact” exercise doesn’t necessarily mean less beneficial to your body. All “low impact” really means is that the exercises are not as rough on your bones and joints as high-impact exercises. Anything that involves sprinting and jumping can be considered a high-impact exercise. Low-impact exercises give you a good workout without pounding and jarring your bones and joints.
My favorite low-impact exercises are swimming, biking, walking, and using an elliptical.
Swimming is by far the best because it’s a full cardio and strength-training workout. The water provides a natural form of resistance that builds and tones muscles without an ounce of impact.
Biking is great for knee-and-ankle arthritis because you are working most of the muscles that support your legs – and with minimal impact.
Daily walking keeps you limber and mobile while keeping arthritis pain at bay. While walking is low-impact, the constant repetition could further inflame your knees if you aren’t careful. That’s why we strongly recommend that you wear a pair of supportive shoes with cushy insoles and replace them as often as necessary. It’s also a good idea to wear a supportive brace or wrap around your knees if walking irritates them.
With all exercises, applying heat to your joints for 10 to 20 minutes prior to working out helps get rid of the initial stiffness. After working out, apply ice to your inflamed joints for 10 to 20 minutes.
If, even these low-impact exercise seem like too much. Try starting with these extra-gentle daily motion exercises. They’re an excellent way of dialing back pain all over your body.
- Raising your arms over your head
- Extending your arms out and making small circles with your hands
- Rolling your shoulders forward and backward
- Moving your feet in circles
- Touching your toes (or as far as you can go)
These simple range-of-motion exercises help relieve chronic stiffness and improve your joints’ ability to move to their full range. They are simple and take only a few minutes.
The point is to keep moving and stay active every day. Exercise makes your joints and muscles stronger. A lack of it does the opposite, opening the door to worsening pain as you get older.
Small Steps to Arthritis Relief
If arthritic pain has kept you from exercising for a while, start small. Eventually you’ll want to push yourself and have a good sweat, but it’s more important to work up to that point. Every physical therapist will tell you that it’s vital to learn the right techniques and get comfortable with the motions of each exercise.
From there, the sky is the limit. And I really want you to believe that. If arthritic pain has kept you from exercising, the right exercises can make a huge difference in relieving that pain.
“Exercise Helps Ease Arthritis Pain and Stiffness.” Mayo Clinic. Published Oct. 26, 2016.
Last Updated: April 21, 2020
Originally Published: May 1, 2018