A large portion of our population are affected by musculoskeletal conditions at some stage during their lifetime. One of the more prominent musculoskeletal conditions is arthritis, with 1 in 7 Australians being diagnosed with a form of arthritis. That’s around 15% of the population (or 3.6 million), with 50% of these people reporting physical limitations due to moderate or severe joint pain. In addition to this, 3 in 4 Australians over the age of 45 with arthritis report having at least one other chronic medical condition. This means that not only is the impact of arthritis is widespread, but it affects more than just our joints. Hence the importance in reducing our likelihood of developing arthritis. In today’s post, we’ll have a look at how exercise can help with this endeavour. But first, let’s have a brief chat about arthritis and exactly what it is!
What is Arthritis?
In simple terms, arthritis is a joint disease that encompasses a range of conditions affecting the bones and muscles around our joints. It describes permanent joint changes that can cause pain. In some cases, these changes are visible but most of the time the damages can only be seen on an X-ray.
There are over 100 different types of arthritis that are split into 4 main categories:
- Degenerative arthritis (e.g. osteoarthritis)
- Inflammatory arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis)
- Infectious arthritis
- Metabolic arthritis
The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis affecting 2.2 million Australians (9.3%) and rheumatoid arthritis affecting 456,000 Australians (1.9%). So, instead of trying to talk about all of the different types and making this post ridiculously long, let’s just focus on osteoarthritis!
What is Osteoarthritis?
As I mentioned previously, osteoarthritis is a type of degenerative arthritis and is the most commonly diagnosed form of arthritis.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the soft cushioning between the bones, also known as cartilage, breaks down. This can cause the joint to become painful, swollen and hard to move. It most commonly occurs in the hands, knees, hips, lower back and neck.
Causes and Risk Factors
The popular belief is that osteoarthritis is caused by the joints wear and tear. But significant research has revealed that the following factors all contribute to the development of osteoarthritis:
- Age (particularly over the age of 50)
- Previous joint injury
- Obesity (or being overweight)
- Weak muscles
- Genetics and family history
- Gender (more common in women)
Osteoarthritis affects people in many ways, including:
- Joint pain during:
- Physical activity
- After a long bout of exercise
- At the end of a busy day
- Joint stiffness
- Reduced range of motion
- Joint clicking or cracking
- Muscle weakness around the joint
- Joint instability or buckling
- Joint pain during:
How can exercise help?
Exercise has been proven to provide many benefits for individuals with osteoarthritis. In particular, exercise does an effective job in lowering our arthritis risk and reducing associated symptoms (see the risk factors and symptoms above).
Individuals with osteoarthritis are less likely to participate in physical activity due to their pain or the fear of aggravating their pain. Due to this, many osteoarthritis patients will have reduced muscular strength and endurance, aerobic capacity, flexibility and overall ability to complete daily tasks. Regular exercise can negate this and help osteoarthritis patients improve their physical capabilities (including muscular strength, endurance and range of motion).
As the statistics indicate, osteoarthritis patients have an increased risk of developing a secondary medical condition. Exercise training, along with an increase in physical activity levels, will assist in reducing the likelihood of developing additional medical conditions.
As mentioned above, exercise will also help osteoarthritis patients minimise the impact of arthritis symptoms, particularly improving their:
- Joint stiffness and pain
- Energy expenditure, which helps with:
- Weight loss
- Body composition
- Stress and anxiety
- Self-esteem and quality of life
- Overall mental health (i.e. risk of depression)
How much exercise should I do?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests that to reduce the risk of developing or reducing the impact of osteoarthritis, individuals should complete a combination of resistance, aerobic and flexibility training. In summary, in order to maximise the benefits of exercise, you should complete:
- Resistance Training: 2 to 3 days/week of moderate or vigorous intensity exercises. For each exercise, you should complete 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.
- Aerobic Training: it is ideal to complete the equivalent of 150-minutes of moderate or 75-minutes of vigorous intensity exercise across 3 to 5 days each week. Optimal activities include cycling, walking or swimming (low joint stress)
- Flexibility Training: daily training that involves moving through your range of motion until you get the feeling of tightness/ stretching without pain. A 10 to 30 second stretch is ideal, using a combination of static and dynamic stretches.
Where should I start?
There are many ways to exercise, but as the ACSM suggest, it is best to use a mixture of strength, aerobic and flexibility training. This will ensure that we are maximising the benefits for our joints. Having some variety can also be a great way to keep things interesting and fresh – as they say, variety is the spice of life!
If you would like some suggestions on some various exercises that you could use, check out No gym? No problem! Effective ways to exercise outside the gym! It has some great suggestions of strength exercises and cardiovascular activities (such as walking, running or cycling) that you can complete, as well as providing an insight on how to complete them safely.
Here is a sneak peek of some general bodyweight and resistance band exercises that are discussed in this post:
Resistance band exercises
As for flexibility training, the 5 strategies to avoid that post-exercise muscle soreness! has some great sections about stretching and self-massage techniques that help improve range of motion. To help get you started, here are some great stretches for different parts of the body:
It is important to consider that the optimal exercises are dependant on which joint is affected by osteoarthritis – this is different for each person. For example, we have a wonderful video (shown below) that demonstrates some exercises that are perfect for hand osteoarthritis. Although the title specifically mentions rheumatoid arthritis, they are perfect for anyone with any form of arthritis.
Keeping your exercise safe
As it is with any form of exercise, it is important to consult an exercise professional before getting started. This is especially important when you are experiencing any limitations or joint pain due to osteoarthritis. Exercise professionals, such as Exercise Physiologists, will be able to help you identify the most effective and safest exercises for your particular situation to ensure that you are maximising the benefits without any additional risk.
One Foot Forward Update!
As I mentioned in the One foot forward for mental health! and The benefits of exercise on breast cancer! posts, I am embarking on the journey to complete 150km of walking to help raise awareness for mental health. Here is a quick update on my progress:
So far, I have managed to walk 127.6km! I am on track to achieve my goal of 150km by the end of the month. To do this, I’ll need to walk 2.26km each day. But lets up the ante a little bit – I’m going to aim to reach 150km before next weeks post. This means I have 7 days to go and I’ll instead need to walk 3.2km each day! Thankfully, we are now back to face-face appointments, which means I’ll be on my feet a lot more throughout the day, so I’m confident about achieving this goal. I’m on the home stretch now and the finish line is in sight!
Stay tuned for next weeks post as I will let you know how I go during the final week of the challenge! Make sure to let us know in the comments section how you are going with your One Foot Forward challenge!
Need Some Help?
Whether it is osteoarthritis or another health condition, exercise can provide tremendous benefits! Exercise Physiologist’s specialise in helping those with various medical conditions with exercise-based treatment. So, if you would like some assistance with this or in achieving your health or performance goals, contact us to organise an appointment with one of our Exercise Physiologists.
Check out some of our other posts!
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Keep your eyes open for more posts coming in the near future – there will be a new post every Thursday! In particular, we are working on a brand new series “How I live strong and prosper”. In this series, we’ll be chatting with Simply Stronger clients and finding out what they do to live strong and prosper!
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References and Useful Resources
Arthritis Foundation, 2020, Osteoarthritis, viewed 21/10/2020, https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/osteoarthritis
Arthritis Foundation, 2020, What is Arthritis?, viewed 21/10/2020, https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/what-is-arthritis
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020, Arthritis, last viewed, 21/10/2020. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/arthritis/contents/arthritis
Photos provided by Aan Nizal, Luis Quintero, Marcel Strauss, Mathew Schwartz and Sriyoga Ashram via Unsplash.com
Riebe, D 2016, ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription, Philadelphia Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2014. 10th ed.