Physically active individuals are healthier, happier and live longer than those who are inactive and unfit. This is especially true for people with arthritis. Yet, arthritis is one of the most common reasons people give for limiting physical activity and recreational pursuits. Inactivity, in addition to arthritis-related problems, can result in a variety of health risks, including Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
In addition, decreased pain tolerance, weak muscles, stiff joints and poor balance common to many forms of arthritis can be made worse by inactivity. For many older people with arthritis, joint and muscle changes due to aging can make matters worse. Therefore, for the person with arthritis, the right kind of exercise is very important.
The three main levels of exercise are 1) therapeutic/rehabilitative; 2) recreational/leisure; and 3) competitive/elite. Finding the right balance is key.
Therapeutic exercises, prescribed by health professionals, address specific joints or body parts affected by the arthritis or arthritis-related surgery. A therapeutic exercise program is often a necessary first step for individuals who have been inactive, have restricted joint motion or muscle strength, are experiencing joint paint or are recovering from surgery such as a joint replacement.
Recreational or leisure activities can range from walking and swimming to cross country skiing and running. Appropriate forms are those that can be done in a controlled and safe manner, have little risk of injury, and place little stress and loads on affected joints. In most cases, participating in recreational exercise does not do away with the need for therapeutic exercises.
Competitive or elite level activities are performed at higher intensities, for longer durations and require greater skill and training. There are limited reports of people with arthritis continuing or returning to a competitive level of sport participation. However, as a general rule, exercising at this level is not recommended for individuals with inflammatory arthritis or with joint problems that may be adversely affected by the sporting activity (e.g. marathon running with hip or knee arthritis). If you have mild or early arthritis and wish to continue exercising at this level, first talk to your rheumatologist or a physical therapist who has experience in arthritis and knowledge of the specific sport.