Many individuals with arthritis are worried that exercise may increase levels of pain or cause further damage to their joints. In actual fact, being physically active is extremely beneficial for your joints and can improve your level of function helping you remain as independent as possible for as long as possible. Participation in exercise can:
Improve joint mobility
Ease joint stiffness
Reduce levels of pain
Increase muscle and bone strength
Boost energy levels
Physical activity is also important for keeping your heart healthy which is particularly important in patients with certain types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis who are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In combination with a healthy balanced diet, exercise can also help you to lose weight which reduces strain on the joints. Other benefits of exercise include improved sleep and mental wellbeing.
How much exercise?
NHS Scotland recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week), as well as strengthening activities on at least 2 days of the week. However, it is important to pace yourself and this can be split into 5-10 minute sessions spread out during the day.
What type of exercise?
Low impact exercises are best for patients with arthritis – this is exercise which places less strain on the joints e.g. swimming or cycling. You should build up your exercise gradually which will slowly improve fitness levels and help prevent injury as your body gets used to exercising. You should also ‘warm up’ the muscles by carrying out some gentle movements/ stretching exercises before activity and ‘warm down’ at the end of the session in a similar manner.
There are 3 types of exercise that are recommended for patients with arthritis:
Stretching exercises – range of movement exercises such as yoga. You should move the joint as far as you can until you feel a stretch in the muscle. Hold for 5-10 seconds then relax. Repeat 5-10 times if you can.
Strengthening exercises – exercise against resistance e.g. Pilates. Strengthening exercises should be started slowly and the number of repetitions built up gradually.
Fitness exercises – e.g. walking, swimming, cycling, fitness classes, hydrotherapy
It is normal to experience some muscle soreness during exercise but you should stop if you have any sudden or severe pain in the muscles or joints. If you notice your joints become more swollen following exercise leave the strengthening exercises until the joints have settled down again. You can continue the stretching exercises but do these gently and reduce the number of repetitions.
The key is to set realistic goals and to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy. Your Rheumatologist or GP may be able to provide further advice or refer you on to a physiotherapist to provide individualised exercises.
In partnership with NHS Lothian, Edinburgh Leisure also offer a free structured physical activity programme called ‘Fit For Health’ designed for those aged 16+ with a long term health condition. Your health professional can decide if you are suitable for the Fit For Health programme and if so they can complete a referral form. The following video provides further information: