Arthritis is the most common long-term health condition in the UK, affecting one in five adults. Women are twice as likely to be one of the 8.5 million people currently suffering from the disease.
The prevalence of this condition now costs the NHS and Social Services around £5.5 billion and the effect on sufferers is severe, with an Arthritis Nation report finding that four out of five people with the condition are in constant pain or limited in their activities of everyday living.
Of the various forms of arthritis, by far the most common is osteoarthritis (OA). OA is a degenerative joint disease that typically affects the load-bearing joints, such as the spine, hips, knees and feet, and as such requires careful consideration when planning exercise.
Damage to the cartilage in the joints leads to a reduction in the ability to tolerate stress and in turn this leads to inflammation and the formation of bone spurs. While there may be no actual cure for the condition itself, there have been many positive studies showing the benefit of exercise on increasing function, decreasing pain and a general improvement in quality of life.
One of the keys to a safe and effective programme for OA is to limit inflammation of the joints while increasing muscle strength, flexibility and overall function, and there are many options for how to do this.
Understanding joint loading is important, as increasing this is likely to have a detrimental effect and increase pain and inflammation. For example, losing a pound in weight can reduce joint loading by four pounds in the knee of an overweight OA sufferer, while exercising in water reduces bodyweight to 10% of what it is normally. Therefore aquatic exercise has been shown to have very positive short-term effects in people suffering from OA. In contrast, jogging can increase knee forces by 3-5 times bodyweight and is likely to cause the person with an arthritic knee or hip many problems.
The first step when selecting an activity is to avoid high repetition, high speed, high load and high impact. For example, cycling is a better choice than jogging or swimming if you are aiming for weight loss, and holding a squat position is preferable to quicker, highly repetitive sets for improving strength. Isometric exercises (where a position is held for anywhere between five and 30 seconds typically) are often better for those who find repeated joint movement a problem.
Active isolated stretching
Stretching should particularly target areas that have become less flexible through either lack of use or muscle weakness. Active isolated stretching, which involves using an active contraction of the opposite muscle to that being stretched, is a great tool for this as it builds strength while developing movement and can easily be done at home with a towel or yoga strap. However, stretching and strengthening go hand-in-hand as too much stretching can create instability. A physiotherapist or skilled personal trainer should ideally perform an assessment of areas in which to develop flexibility.
An example of active isolated stretching would be to stretch the hamstring. To do this, lay on your back with a towel or strap around your foot. Flex the hip to 90º, then straighten your knee by actively contracting the thigh muscles. At the end of your contraction apply further gentle stretch using the strap or towel for a brief 1-2 seconds. Repeat for 8-10 reps on each stretch.
Finally, many people struggle to maintain an exercise regime and take time to find the type of activities that are best suited to them. Classes can often be a great way to make exercise more interactive and to share experiences with others. However, whatever you do choose, try to stick with it as the benefits of relieving the pain of arthritis are there for those who do.
Please note that before undertaking any programme of exercise you should always consult your doctor or a qualified health and exercise professional.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Fitness Professionals Ltd or Virtual Magazine. Consult a qualified health or fitness professional before making changes to your diet or exercise.