If you’re suffering with joints made sore by osteoarthritis, your natural instinct might be to rest and take it easy.
But experts say that’s exactly what you should not do if you have this degenerative condition, in which the cartilage between the joints becomes damaged and worn away.
In fact, many of the eight million or more people in the UK who live with osteoarthritis are advised by the medical world to stay active as a positive way of managing their condition.
They say that exercise keeps the arthritic joint moving, which helps reduce stiffness while maintaining better flexibility and a wider range of movement. Endorphins, the chemicals that the body releases while exercising, can also act as natural painkillers.
It means that sensible exercising can actually ease the pain of osteoarthritis rather than make it worse. Yet doctors agree that it can be a delicate balancing act of doing some exercise but not so much that it will increase any discomfort and pain.
Aches and gains
Michael Cronin, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust and Nuffield Health Warwickshire Hospital, believes strongly in continuing or even starting to exercise to help manage osteoarthritis.
“Being diagnosed with osteoarthritis definitely does not spell the end of doing any exercise,” says Mr Cronin, who is often asked this question by patients.
He says that those with the condition might have to consider modifying the exercise they do, although it can still play a significant part in their lives.
“I often need to tell some of my patients to reduce the intensity of the high-impact exercise they do if they’re suffering with arthritis. But I never tell them to stop, because activity does help make the joints less stiff.
“For example, if they’re keen runners and have arthritis in their knees or hips, they might have to stop clocking up lots of miles as they pound the streets.
“Instead I suggest a better option would be to run shorter distances, such as 5km or 10km, and train on grass rather than hard roads. It might rule out marathons, but they can still run.”
But there are many other types of exercise that have much less impact on already fragile joints, says Mr Cronin.
Mix it up
“As well as running, any exercise where you’re upright with lots of force going through your joints when your feet strike the ground can aggravate osteoarthritis,” Mr Cronin says.
“As an alternative, lower-impact exercises are better. Swimming is particularly good, as is cycling either on a static bike in a gym-type setting or outside.”
Another option is to run on a treadmill or cross-trainer.
“This form of running on a machine, as well as swimming and cycling, will provide you with a cardiovascular workout [exercise that raises heart rate and gets you out of breath] as well as working your muscles.”
You do not even have to leave the house. Arthritis Research UK designed a series of Everyday Exercises For Everyday Lives for people with joint pain or mild osteoarthritis, which can be done at home in a few minutes.
Making the muscles work through exercise can really be beneficial to people with osteoarthritis if their condition becomes more serious, Mr Cronin says.
“There has been plenty of research that building up the muscles around the arthritic joint will help. Stronger muscles will make that area more stable.
“By being fitter through exercise, you will be more able to undergo surgery on an arthritic joint and be better equipped to recover more quickly afterwards.
“The will to get back to exercising again after an operation can be a strong motivating force.”
So if you have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, it certainly is not the signal to pack away your trainers and sports kit.
“You can still live an active life with osteoarthritis,” says Mr Cronin. “And exercise can still be a big part of it.”
Living with osteoarthritis
This series of Telegraph articles, brought to you by Voltarol, is about osteoarthritis and how to reduce the pain and swelling it causes, so you can continue doing the sports, hobbies and jobs you love.
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