It can be tempting to avoid exercise when you’re experiencing joint pain for fear of making any swelling or stiffness worse. However, reducing your activity and movement is not the answer, and in fact, not being active enough can actually bring on more pain.
There are various reasons why you might have pain in your joints. Common issues such as osteoarthritis- which is caused by the wearing down of cartilage- are often to blame. However, cartilage itself can’t feel pain as it has no nerve tissues. Therefore, the pain you feel is generally a result of the inflammation of the connective tissues, ligaments or tendons surrounding the joint.
You may be nervous to increase your levels of exercise if you’re experiencing joint inflammation. However, the most important thing to remember is that your body needs to stay active, and exercise offers a range of benefits which could help ease your symptoms.
How does exercise help?
Firstly, exercise strengthens the muscles and tissues which support each joint, meaning that your joints take less of the burden during every-day activities. Exercise also improves posture and balance, which keeps your weight evenly distributed throughout your body which lessens excess pressure on certain joints such as hips and knees. Exercise can help you fight inflammation, too. The very process of getting older causes us low-grade inflammation, which is associated with increased risk of aches, pains and diseases. Exercise has been proven to reduce tissue inflammation,1 as well as having general benefits in reducing body fat mass, which can put strain on your joints. A recent review of research has indicated that exercise is an effective means of relieving pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, and that exercising isn’t detrimental to the joint as was previously thought.2 A small Australian study from 2014 suggests that regular exercise might help improve your tolerance to pain. Out of a group of previously healthy but inactive people, those who began exercising found their pain threshold increased over six weeks.3
In addition to these benefits, exercise is well-known to promote better sleep, boost mood and increase your general health, all of which help you feel better overall.
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What exercises should I be doing?
It’s best to participate in low or moderate-impact exercises so as not to put too much pressure on the joints. This means that high-impact exercise such as sprinting are to be avoided during episodes of joint pain as they could put undue stress on the tissues surrounding your joints.
Low-impact exercise refers to an activity where the body is fully supported, such as yoga, cross-training and swimming. This category also includes moderate-impact exercises where one foot generally stays in contact with the ground or a machine, such as brisk walking, or stepping. High-intensity exercise are more vigorous and tend to involve both feet leaving the ground at the same time, such as skipping, squash, football and sprinting, which can be too much for inflamed joints.
Along with choosing low-to moderate impact exercises, it’s a good idea to incorporate three sub-types of exercise into your routine- cardiovascular exercise, strength training and movements which enhance flexibility such as yoga.
Cardio refers to any aerobic exercise which gets your heart pumping and your body using oxygen. Examples of low and medium-impact cardio exercises that are great to do when you have joint pain include cycling, swimming, cross-training and fast walking. Cardio is great for lowering your body fat which reduces the pressure on your joints and keeps inflammation down.
Strength trainingWeight-bearing movements such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses help keep the muscles arounds the joints strong and could help to decrease your pain levels. Conditions that cause joint inflammation- such as rheumatoid arthritis- affect muscle mass and strength. Over time this could lead to disability, so it’s important to target muscles that could have become weak due to under-use.4 Studies have shown significant improvement in the quality of life of patients with rheumatoid arthritis when following resistance-based exercise therapy programs.5 It’s a good idea to vary your routine, and don’t exercise the same muscles every time you work out.
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Flexibility exercisesMovements that improve your general range-of-motion are excellent ways to increase flexibility and improve the function of your joints. Yoga and Pilates poses are a very low-impact way to exercise your muscles and gradually build strength, as well as improving posture and reducing stress and tension. A recent study has indicated that yoga and relaxation can actually reduce inflammation within the body.6 Yoga and Pilates is gentle enough to be done every day, and over time can be extremely effective at building strength and taking the pressure off inflamed joints.
Remember- listen to your body. Some soreness and stiffness is normal, but if you experience pain or high levels of discomfort, stop the exercise and consult a GP or physiotherapist.
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- [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3320801/.
- [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5074793/.
- [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24504426.
- [Online] https://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/arthritis-today-magazine/149-summer-2010/resistance-trainning.aspx.
- [Online] https://academic.oup.com/rheumatology/article/51/3/519/1796970.
- [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/.