Exercises Can Ease Arthritis Pain

Last Editorial Review: 6/2/2005

With exercise, you strengthen muscles, reduce stiffness, improve flexibility,  and boost your mood and self-esteem.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

If you've got aching joints and arthritis, exercise can help. It may be hard to believe, but experts agree - moving your joints helps relieve joint pain.

"When you exercise, you strengthen the muscles around the joints, which helps take stress off joints," says Richard Weil, MEd, CDE, WebMD's fitness expert. "It also reduces joint stiffness and builds flexibility and endurance." Exercise can improve your mood and self-esteem. It helps you sleep better, keeps weight under control, and gives you more energy.

There's also a certain sense of accomplishment that comes from exercise. After all, pushing yourself to exercise - when your body hurts - isn't easy. In addition to arthritis pain relief, exercise can offset other health problems, like osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease.

If you're new at this, just remember - start slow, Weil advises.

Warm Up for Arthritis

Whether you have arthritis or not, a warm-up is a smart place to start. Going into an exercise activity with cold muscles can only cause pain and possibly injury. If you have arthritis, you may want to do something extra. "A lot of people like to take a warm bath or apply heat packs to joints before they do any exercise, to get the synovial [joint] fluid flowing ... it lubricates the joint," Weil tells WebMD.

Movement itself can warm up muscles. If you're getting ready to swim or walk, your warm-up can be a gentle swim or walk - just take it slow, says Weil. Stretching is also good before any type of exercise: Do a few overhead stretches. Bend to reach your toes (don't try to touch them).

Exercises for Arthritis

Weil suggests these warm-up exercises. Do three to five repetitions each:

Side bends: Put hands on hips. Bend from the waist on one side, then come back up. Repeat on the other side.

Shoulder shrugs: Raise one or both shoulders up toward the ears. Lower and repeat.

Arm circles: Extend arms out at both sides. Rotate arms forward, then in reverse.

Torso rotations: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and toes turned slightly out. Rotate to your left side. Then rotate to your right side.

Strengthening Exercises for Arthritis

Muscle strengthening can come from lifting hand weights, using flexible tubing, even lifting a 1 liter water bottle, says Weil. Strengthening exercises can also be done in a chair while you follow a hand-weight exercise video, he says.

To start a hand-weight program, use weights that you can lift 12 to 15 times with good form. Make sure you feel comfortable using the weights.

Bicep curls: Start with elbows bent at the sides. Keeping your upper arm at your side, bring one dumbbell up to your shoulder. Lower to original position and repeat with opposite arm. Continue to alternate between sides.

Tricep extensions: Use both hands to hold weight overhead. Keeping your elbows pointed upward, lower the weight behind your head. (Make sure you don't hit the back of your neck.) Raise weight overhead again. Return and repeat.

Side lateral raises: With arms down at your sides, raise arms (slightly bent) to shoulder height. Lower and repeat.

Wall push-up: This exercise is great for people who are not able to do a regular push up. Stand with feet about 12 inches from a wall. Place hands a little wider than shoulders. Lower your chest to the wall, then push back to the starting position.

Aerobic Exercise for Arthritis

For any adult - including people with arthritis -- 30 minutes of exercise, at least three times a week, is advised. "But you can accumulate it in small amounts during the day," says Weil. "Start with 5 to 10 minutes, then increase slowly."

Walking, biking, swimming, tai chi, yoga, and water aerobics are good for arthritis, says Weil. Water exercise is especially ideal because of water's soothing warmth and buoyancy. It's a gentle way to exercise joints and muscles - plus it acts as resistance to help build muscle strength.

Spas and hot tubs are comforting and allow some gentle exercise. But one note of caution: Elderly people are more prone to becoming overheated, so soaking time in tubs and spas should be shorter. Water aerobics programs - many especially for people with arthritis -- are very popular at indoor pools, Weil adds. Many are sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation.

In your everyday life, you can also work in some pain-relieving exercise: Wash the car, mow the lawn, vacuum the house, and window-shop at the mall. "While you're watching TV, walk around the room," Weil suggests. While it may not seem like much, small movements can help keep joints moving, plus you burn calories.

If any of these exercises cause pain, use ice on the joint, says Weil. A bag of frozen vegetables over a towel works great. If pain lasts more than one hour after exercise, then it was too strenuous. "You should either cut back, or speak to your doctor," he advises.

Published May 2005.

SOURCES: Richard Weil, MEd, CDE, WebMD's fitness expert. The Arthritis Foundation.

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