Savvy Senior
by Dr. Jim Miller
Mar 21, 2012 | 4393 views | 0 0 comments | 91 91 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dear Savvy Senior,

Can exercise help seniors with arthritis? I have osteoarthritis and have read that certain exercises can help ease the pain, but I don’t know where to start, and I certainly don’t want to make it any worse than it already is. What can you tell me?

Sedentary Sally

Dear Sally,

Lots of seniors who have arthritis believe that exercise will worsen their condition, but that’s not true. Study after study has shown that exercise is actually one of the best treatments for osteoarthritis.

Proper and careful exercises can help reduce joint pain and stiffness, strengthen muscles around the joints and increase flexibility. It also helps manage other chronic conditions that are common among seniors with arthritis, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Here are some tips to help you get moving.

Exercises for arthritis

Determining exactly which types of exercises are best for you depends on the form and severity of your arthritis, and which joints are involved. It’s best to work with your doctor or a physical therapist to help you develop an exercise program that works for you. The different types of exercises that are most often recommended to seniors with arthritis include:

• Range-of-motion exercises: These are gentle stretching exercises that can relieve stiffness as well as improve your ability to move your joints through their normal range of motion. These exercises should be done daily.

• Strengthening exercise: Calisthenics, weight training and working with resistance bands are recommended (two or more days a week) to maintain and improve your muscle strength, which helps support and protect your joints.

• Aerobic exercises: Low-impact activities like walking, cycling, swimming or water aerobics are all recommended three to five times per week to help improve cardiovascular health, control weight, and improve your overall function.

It’s also important to keep in mind that when you first start exercising, you need to go slow to give your body time to adjust. If you push yourself too hard you can aggravate your joint pain, however, some muscle soreness or joint achiness in the beginning is normal.

To help you manage your pain start by warming up with some simple stretches or range of motion exercises for five to 10 minutes before you move on to strengthening or aerobic exercises. Another tip is to apply heat to the joints you’ll be working before you exercise, and use cold packs after exercising to reduce inflammation.

If you’re experiencing a lot of pain while you exercise, you may need to modify the frequency, duration, or intensity of your exercises until the pain improves. Or you may need to try a different activity – for example switching from walking to water aerobics. But it you’re having severe, sharp or constant pain, or large increases in swelling or your joints feel hot or red, you need to stop and see your doctor.

Exercise resources

To help you exercise at home, there are a number arthritis exercise DVDs you can purchase to guide you through a wide variety of activities. Collage Video (collagevideo.com, 800-819-7111) sells several at prices ranging between $10 and $25, as does the Arthritis Foundation Store at afstore.org or 800-283-7800.

Also see go4life.niapublications.org, a resource created by the National Institute on Aging that offers a free exercise DVD and book that provides illustrated examples of exercises you can do to improve your condition. You can order your free copies online or by calling 800-222-2225.

If you need some motivation or don’t like exercising alone, ask your doctor about exercise programs in your area for people with arthritis. Hospitals and clinics sometimes offer special programs, as do local health clubs and senior centers. The Arthritis Foundation also conducts exercise and aquatic programs for people with arthritis in many communities throughout the U.S. Contact your local branch (see arthritis.org/chaptermap.php, or call 800-283-7800 for contact information) to find out what may be available near you. Also see fightarthritispain.org for more tips.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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