Exercise and arthritis: what you need to know

Physiotherapist at Bupa UK
23 January 2017

The days of being advised to rest your joints if you have arthritis are long gone. It’s natural to feel wary about exercising when your joints feel uncomfortable or even painful. But joints, even sore ones, need to move. Taking some regular exercise will help your arthritis and improve your general health and wellbeing.

Lady stretching on the beach.

Why is exercise important for arthritis?

Although it may seem strange when your joints feel sore, moving them regularly will actually help to ease pain and discomfort.

Exercise strengthens your muscles and bones, and improves the way your joints work. And it may also delay disability and help you stay active for longer.

The old saying, ‘if you don’t use it you lose it’ is relevant here. It’s important to keep using your joints to help stop them becoming stiff and immobile.

How to get started

It’s never too late to start becoming more active. If you’re new to exercise, start slowly and build up gradually. Your physiotherapist can help you with an exercise plan.

To help you succeed try:

  • doing some form of exercise regularly – don’t store it up for just one day a week
  • choosing an activity which you enjoy so you’ll want to keep doing it
  • being active with a friend, or family member for company
  • setting yourself a goal – what do you want to be doing in six weeks, or a year?

If you have any other major health problems, check with your GP before starting exercise.

What exercises are best?

Try and do three main types of exercise.

  • Stretching exercises (also known as ‘range of movement’ exercises). Do these every day, even if you have a flare-up and your joints are hot and swollen. Stretch your joints as far as you can, comfortably and safely. This helps to ease pain and keep your joints moving properly.
  • Strengthening exercises. In arthritis the muscles supporting your joints may weaken through underuse. These exercises help strengthen them. Start strengthening exercises slowly and build up. Talk to your physiotherapist before starting high-impact exercises.
  • Fitness exercises. Also known as ‘aerobic’ exercises, these raise your heart rate, make you a little breathless and help to keep your heart healthy. Lots of activities fit in this category, including brisk walking and swimming.

You don’t need to do formal exercises to be ‘active’. Decide to include more physical activity in your day-to-day life. Whatever you enjoy - gardening, housework, dancing, playing with grandchildren or walking the dog. Use the car or bus less and walk more. Take stairs when you can. Just keep those joints moving.

How much should I do?

To stay healthy we should all be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity at least five times a week. You can do this in smaller blocks of time if 30 minutes is too much.

If you have arthritis, what your joints need is regular evenly-paced activity. Avoid the ‘boom and bust’ of doing far too much one day then needing days to recover. Instead, try and do a similar amount of activity each day.

If your joints are painful, start gently and increase gradually. Remember that even sore joints need to move – you won’t be damaging them by gently using them. If you have a flare-up don’t stop exercising completely. It will only make it harder to get going again afterwards.

If after exercising you feel much more uncomfortable, you may have overdone it. Ease back and build up again gradually. Don’t forget to listen to your body.

Want to know more?

For specific examples of the types of exercise you can do, visit Arthritis Research UK.
Sarah Hart
Physiotherapist at Bupa UK

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