Exercise to get healthy. It’s a no brainer, right? What if you are one of the millions of Americans suffering from some form of arthritis? The prospect of engaging in regular exercise may seem daunting, but it may be a great treatment option for those with arthritis.

More than likely, you or someone you know suffers from some form of arthritis. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 23 percent of all American adults (more than 54 million people) have arthritis.

Dr. Sharad Lakhanpal, president of the American College of Rheumatology and a board certified rheumatologist in Dallas, says the challenges are both mental and physical when arthritis sufferers first approach exercise as a treatment for their condition.

“I think they are afraid, or there is at least a little fear that if they exercise they will hurt more,” Lakhanpal says. “I think there is also a general lack of knowledge for both patients and doctors. It’s important for the medical community to do more. If doctors tell their patients they need to do something, then usually, they’ll do it.”

How it helps

The positive impact of exercise on our bodies is well documented. It helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar, fights obesity and relieves stress put on arthritic joints. Lakhanpal says it’s no coincidence that arthritis sufferers also have many of the other conditions related to not getting enough exercise.

Using the knee as an example, Lakhanpal explains that having stronger core and leg muscles will help relieve the pressure those joints endure when the rest of the body is weaker. The cartilage in the joint acts like a cushion. If the muscles are strong, the pressure on the joint is reduced. When muscles are weak, the joint is working harder, causing strain on the cartilage and bone.

“Weight control is critical,” Lakhanpal says. “The ability to lose weight and keep it off is critical for people who are overweight and have arthritis. You have to be mindful of the calories you take in and the calories you burn.”

What to do

Regardless of your weight or physical condition, Lakhanpal recommends talking with your physician or rheumatologist before starting any fitness program. With persistence and patience, he says real change and improvement will come from developing a healthy exercise regimen.

“It helps you mentally because you know exercise makes you feel good. The brain releases certain hormones called endorphins. When you exercise, you typically breathe harder, which gives your body more oxygen,” Lakhanpal says. “If people would be more physically active they could reduce the progression of the disease and the impact of the disease on their bodies.”

Lakhanpal, the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation all recommend similar exercise methods to help treat arthritis. Again, your doctor, rheumatologist or physical therapist will help find exercises that are right for you and your current condition:

SIMPLE WALKING: Walking is relatively safe, even for those with severe arthritis. Supportive shoes and an even surface are a good start. Lakhanpal also suggests finding a track that offers some give. He warns that hard surfaces can jar joints and increase discomfort.

AQUATIC FITNESS: Swimming and water aerobics offer great resistance with almost no impact on your joints. Swimming in general also provides good cardiovascular exercise.

CYCLING: Stationary bikes, both upright and recumbent, are another great, low-impact way to work your joints. Use little to no resistance when starting out to ensure you aren’t hurting your joints.

YOGA/TAI CHI: Stretching, balance and control — three things the body needs that not only help you exercise but also make it through everyday struggles.

 RESISTANCE TRAINING: Building up the muscles in your legs, back, core and shoulders will go a long way toward relieving the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. It’s crucially important to not overdo it on the weights. Know your limits and use correct form. If possible, consult a physical therapist or personal trainer who has experience in working with arthritis patients.

ARTHRITIS facts and figures

  • 60% of Americans with arthritis are of working age (18-64 years)
  • 100+ diseases and conditions make up the arthritis family
  • $81 billion is spent each year treating arthritis
  • $16.5 billion is spent specifically on osteoarthritis (joint-specific arthritis)

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Here are a few more things to keep in mind and help you along your journey:

Get a partner: Exercising with a friend makes it less like a chore and can also keep you motivated to stay the course.

Reward yourself: Avoid doing this with food, but once you hit a personal milestone, get a massage or maybe buy a new book as a little treat.

 Timing is everything: Find the best time to fit in your fitness. The more convenient it is for you, the more likely you’ll be to stick with it.

Commit: Exercise is essential. Treat it as such. Do your best to stick with your schedule. Before long you’ll start seeing tangible results, and that should motivate you even more.

Set modest goals: If doing 30 minutes of exercise a day seems too daunting, break it into three 10-minute workouts and build from there.

 Understand your discomforts: Some discomfort is to be expected. If your knees begin to hurt more than they usually do, don’t push it. Try working your upper body for a couple of days, then ease back into your lower body exercises. Always do some gentle stretching before and after exercising. If the pain becomes moderate to severe, stop what you are doing and contact your doctor.