Regular Exercise Helps Your Joints
Inactivity is not good when you have osteoarthritis, as it reduces muscle strength and increases the chance of a fall. Daily exercises through a joint’s available range of movement helps to maintain your mobility and avoid muscle weakening. In fact, research shows that people with osteoarthritis (OA) who exercise regularly experience less stiffness and pain in their lower limbs than those who don’t. Exercises that strengthen the quadriceps leg muscles can even prove as effective in reducing symptoms of knee osteoarthritis as NSAID painkillers.
In the Arthritis, Diet and Activity Promotion Trial (ADAPT), involving over 300 sedentary, overweight people with OA, those who combined exercise with a weight loss diet did significantly better than those using exercise or weight loss alone, or who just followed a healthier lifestyle; they reported less knee pain, an improved ability to climb stairs and were able to walk further during a 6-minute test period.
Low impact aerobic exercises such as swimming and walking are most beneficial. You might try a progressive walking regime, starting with an amount you can tolerate well, say 10 minutes, and gradually increase to 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 days per week. Avoid walking more than 2 miles per day, however, which may have an adverse effect on joints. You should also avoid walking on rough or uneven ground.
While exercise may trigger joint pain in the early stages, over time it usually improves symptoms of osteoarthritis. You can use hot packs, cold packs and paracetamol to help reduce pain before and after exercise. Ice massage is also helpful, as it reduces or prevents swelling and inflammation by constricting blood vessels. In people with osteoarthritis of the knee, having a 20 minute ice massage, five days a week, for three weeks, was found to improve quadriceps muscle strength by 29%, and to improve the range of knee flexion by 8%. Another study showed that cold packs were effective in reducing knee swelling.
If you find exercise triggers persistent joint pain, however, reduce the intensity of the activity or change to another form of exercise such as swimming. You should avoid exercising if a joint is inflamed or swollen, however, until symptoms have subsided.
What happens when you physically can’t exercise, however, due to difficulties standing, poor balance, disability or weakness from prolonged poor health? Passive exercise offers the perfect solution. Originally developed to help exercise paralysed muscles, it involves having your legs moved gently by a machine while you sit and relax. Although the machine performs the movement for you, it mobilises your joints while avoiding undue pressure on weight bearing joints, including your knees, hips and back. Passive exercise stimulates your muscles and gives your circulatory system a gentle work out, helping to improve your cardiovascular fitness and relieve swelling of the ankles due to fluid retention.
For those who can’t participate in normal exercise, passive exercise machines help to improve your level of physical activity and stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible – all from the comfort of your armchair.
HappyLegs is a passive exercise machine that is easy to use. With three speed settings, you can start ‘walking’ slowly and gradually increase the pace as you gain in fitness. And while many people with the best of intentions give up exercise due to boredom, there’s little risk of that when you are sitting back reading a book, listening to the radio or watching TV as you take your daily stroll!
Advice: When you have osteoarthritis, regular gentle exercise helps to maintain joint movements and mobility. Usual advice is to exercise for at least 30 minutes on most days. This doesn’t have to be done all in one go. You can divide your exercise into three periods of 10 minutes each or two periods of 15 minutes if you prefer – or longer. Shorter times are easier to achieve when you have joint symptoms.
About the author:
Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT
Qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. As well as being a licensed doctor, she is also a Registered Nutritionist, Registered Nutritional Therapist and an award winning health writer. Sarah writes widely on all aspects of health and nutrition, including complementary medicine and the safe use of herbal remedies and vitamin supplements. She has written over 50 popular self-help books, is the Editor of YourWellness magazine, and a regular contributor to Prima, the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other newspapers.