Achy joints, due to arthritis, are more than an inconvenience! The aches and stiffness make it harder to get around and do the things you enjoy. At one time, healthcare professionals told patients with achy joints to “take it easy” and to lighten up on their daily activities, suggesting that exercise might be harmful to arthritic joints. Fortunately, the tide is turning and more physicians recommend exercise for people with chronic joint pain and stiffness. In fact, a lack of movement can actually worsen the problem.
Remember the phrase, “use it or lose it?” Joints and muscle need activity to stay healthy. Movement helps lubricate joints and supply them with nutrition while a lack of movement causes the muscles that surround the joints to weaken and shorten. Weak muscles can’t support the joint as well and contribute to joint instability. This leads to greater stiffness, a higher risk of injury, and more difficulty getting around. That’s where exercise can help. There’s even a popular saying, “motion is lotion.” We can’t let our bodies stay in one position too long.
Those Achy Knees!
The most common cause of achy joints is osteoarthritis, a degenerative process that gradually damages the cartilage that covers the ends of bones. Cartilage is important for reducing friction when you move the joint. In some people, the cartilage erodes so much that the bones almost rub against one another. Needless to say, that degree of damage may lead to significant disability.
Just how common is osteoarthritis? Around 18% of women over the age of 60 have osteoarthritis severe enough to cause symptoms. The number is around 10% in men. It’s likely that the percentages will continue to rise as the population ages and as obesity becomes more common. Sadly, there isn’t a cure for this common health ailment but everyone needs movement and people with osteoarthritis are no exception.
Unfortunately, exercise can’t restore cartilage that’s already lost or damaged but it can, potentially, slow the arthritic process by nourishing the existing cartilage and by strengthening the muscles that lie over the joints. In fact, a new study published on Science Daily shows exercise may reduce the progression of cartilage damage by blocking the release of inflammatory chemicals. Plus, exercise helps with weight control. The more weight you carry on your frame, the greater the pressure you place on joints like your knees. Along with aging and genetics, being overweight or obese is a strong risk factor for arthritis of the knees.
Where evidence of the benefits of exercise for osteoarthritis is greatest is for knee arthritis. A disproportionate number of people with knee osteoarthritis have weak quadriceps muscles. In fact, a study found that weak quads were linked with greater narrowing of the joint space in the knees of women but not men. Joint spacing narrowing is a classic sign of arthritis and is often used to determine the extent of the disease and follow its course.
However, not all studies show an association between quad weakness and the degree of osteoarthritis of the knee found on x-ray. One study showed that subjects with lower isometric strength in the quads were more likely to have knee pain than those with strong quad muscles. But, it didn’t show a link between quad strength and the extent of osteoarthritis on knee x-ray.
At the very least, exercise that strengthens the muscles that support the knees seems to help the symptoms. In support of exercise is a randomized-controlled study of 56 knee osteoarthritis sufferers. One group took part in resistance training to strengthen the muscles that support the knee. They also took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds and took part in physiotherapy and acupuncture. The second group did all modalities with the exception of resistance training. The results were encouraging. The exercise group experienced significant improvements in pain and functionality relative to the non-exercise group. They continued to experience these improvements at one-year of follow-up. This suggests that resistance training can be a valuable addition to therapy for knee arthritis.
How Does Exercise Improve Chronic Joint Pain?
As mentioned strengthening the muscles that overly the joint, give the joint more support and resistance to injury. Research suggests that exercise also improves joint mechanics and improves muscle firing patterns. This leads to healthier joint function. Exercise also has a modest anti-inflammatory effect. Plus, exercise by placing mild stress on the body modestly increases the threshold for pain.
An indirect way exercise helps achy knees is by helping control body weight. The heavier you are the more force your knees have to bear when you stand. When you walk or climb stairs, that force is magnified even more. Despite the importance of exercise, only around 27% of people with knee arthritis do any form of exercise. Don’t let that be you!
Listen to your body if you have achy joints. If you feel stiff or sore on a particular day, lighten up on the weight you use. If you experience joint popping or a joint locks or swells, stop exercising and give your body a rest. Always start with a 5 to 10-minute dynamic warm-up to increase blood flow to the muscles and joints you’ll be working. Likewise, include a 10 minute warm-up at the end of each workout. After cooling down, place an ice pack on your sore joints if they feel achier than usual. If you have severe arthritis, talk to your physician before embarking on an exercise program. Also, vary the exercises you do if you have joint issues. Cross-training helps reduce repetitive stress on the knee joints.
The Bottom Line
The natural reaction to having achy joints is to move as little as possible but that’s the worst thing you can do. Movement nourishes the joints and strengthens the overlying muscles. It also improves joint function. So, movement can help, but be sure to listen to your body and adapt your training appropriately.
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