Bone & joint health Featured Physiotherapy

Best and worst exercises for arthritis and joint pain

Older couple swimming
Monica Matys
Written by Monica Matys

One in six Canadians report having arthritis, according to the Arthritis Society. With age, joints are strained more easily, but certain types of physical activity are an important way to decrease your pain and improve independence. Suzanne Denis, an advanced practice physiotherapist in Sunnybrook’s Holland Musculoskeletal Program, gives some advice on how to get moving safely.

Activity is a natural remedy for arthritis. It helps feed the joint cartilage, keeping the joints moving freely. Activity maintains muscle strength that is important for balance and decreases the overall risk of falls. It makes everyday activities easier by decreasing stiffness and boosting energy. Staying active also opens the door to, quite literally, exercising some control over your condition.

So what kind of physical activity is best if you have sore joints? Denis says there are many options, but keep in mind that the type of activity you do will affect the strain on your joints (known as “loading”) as well as overall joint wear and tear.

Here are some common activities and how they stack up:

  • Standing on both legs: 80 per cent of your body weight is going through both knees
  • Walking at an average speed (about 5km/h): four times your body weight is going through hips and knees
  • Jogging (9 km/h): nine times your body weight is going through hips and knees
  • Cycling (medium resistance): four times less load through your hips and knees compared to walking
  • Swimming in chest depth water: only half your body weight is going through your hips and knees compared to walking on dry land

At work, home and play, you can reduce your risk of injury by using good body mechanics and safe work practices. Make sure you are fit for the activity you are about to do. Where appropriate, use properly fitting protective equipment.

Physical activity is also an important part of a healthy lifestyle because it promotes a healthy body weight, improves mood, reduces the risk of and manages a number of diseases as well as taking strain off the joints. Even a small weight gain can put a serious strain on your body. For example, gaining 10 pounds around your waist equates to 30 pounds of extra pressure around your hips, and 30 to 60 pounds around your knees, every step you take!

Activities to avoid

For people with joint pain issues, there are some activities you’ll want to avoid, including anything with high impact (i.e. running and jumping), twisting (i.e. racquet sports) and high speed uncontrolled movements. When possible, avoid forcing end-range of movement, which includes vigorous forced stretches. It’s also important to listen to your body. Red flags during activity include joint pain during or after exercise, sharp pain that escalates or a swollen, red or hot joint.

Denis says new evidence finds strengthening muscles can reduce the risk of developing knee arthritis, as well as reduce pain and improve overall functioning.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any new activities. Remember that small steps can lead to major life changes!

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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