What are the best exercises if you have arthritis?

Move it or lose it. That’s the key to keeping fit and mobile when living with arthritis. But what sort of exercise should – and shouldn’t – you do?

Exercise is a vital part of arthritis treatment, says researcher Professor Kim Bennell, of the University of Melbourne’s department of physiotherapy.

“When you exercise, you’re building up muscle strength. You’re keeping joints moving, improving balance, improving functional ability, and it certainly helps with pain relief,” says Prof Bennell, who works closely with Arthritis Australia.

It also improves mental health, she says, and helps people with arthritis avoid the pitfalls of inactivity such as weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

“It’s not just structured exercise programs but general physical activity as well, because people with arthritis don’t meet recommended daily levels of activity,” Prof Bennell says.

Which sorts of exercise are good for arthritis?

Pain Australia Chief Executive Officer Carol Bennett recommends low-impact exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t push yourself. You can swim and cycle at a pace that really keeps your heart moving,” she says.

“It’s about doing something that you enjoy. It’s important to remain active, and to do that you need to enjoy what you’re doing.”

Exercises for arthritis sufferers should focus on:

  • Flexibility: Maintaining and improving joint and muscle mobility using muscle stretches, moving joints through the full range of motion and activities like yoga;
  • Muscle strengthening ­: Using weights, resistance bands or gym machines to support and ease pressure on sore joints, and improve bone strength and balance; and
  • Fitness: Improving heart and lung health with exercises such as a brisk walk, swimming or cycling.

Can exercise make arthritis worse?

Prof Bennell says there are two misconceptions with arthritis and exercise – that exercise may overload or damage joints, and that pain during exercise is a sign of joint damage.

“Oftentimes, people think that arthritis is due to wear and tear and that they will damage their joints if they exercise, but that’s not the case,” she says.

“We know that exercise is good for people with arthritis and getting some pain while exercising is quite normal.

“It’s often more effective to have a personalised program, so see a health professional like a physiotherapist who can design a program, and monitor and adjust it.”

Ms Bennett says any exercise is worthwhile for people with arthritis.

“Any movement, no matter how small, is good. Whatever gets people to move more. It could be mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, walking the dog, it could be yoga or tai chi.

“All those things help improve your balance. They prevent falls, improve posture and

Co-ordination and promote relaxation.”

If you need help to get started, PainTrainer is a free eight-week online pain-coping skills training program run by the University of Melbourne.

Written by Jamie Duncan.