Safe Workouts for Osteoarthritis?

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Should people with osteoarthritis avoid running, jumping, and other high-impact exercise?

Yes, as a general rule, but it depends on the severity of the osteoarthritis (OA), which joints are affected, and other factors.

OA occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of bones breaks down over time and is unable to adequately repair and renew itself. Physical activity is important in managing OA because it stimulates cartilage to take up nutrients; it also strengthens mus­cles so they stabilize joints more effectively. Strengthening the thigh muscles is especially important for knee OA.

Most people with OA of the knee or hip, particularly those who are sedentary and overweight, should stick to “joint friendly” activities such as walking, cycling, and low-impact aerobics; some may do best with no-impact exercise such as swimming and water workouts.

However, some people with OA can do high-impact activities and even run mara­thons, as the CDC points out on its arthritis website. What’s more, a few studies suggest that higher-impact exercises may actually help with milder cases of OA. For instance, a recent Finnish study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise involved 80 women, ages 50 to 65, who had mild OA of the knee. Half undertook a supervised, progressive, high-impact exer­cise program (involving stepping on and off benches, jumping over obstacles, and multi-directional aerobics) three times a week; the other half continued their normal activities. After a year, the exercise group experienced improvements in knee cartilage, as seen on MRI scans, as well as better physical function.

One plus of higher-impact exercise is that it’s particularly good for building bone, as was seen in a previous study involving the same Finnish subjects and exercise regimen. Many older people have both OA and osteo­porosis (weak bones).

If you have OA, don’t attempt high-impact exercise without consulting your doctor or a physical therapist. The women in the Finnish study, for instance, had only mild OA and were carefully instructed to gradually increase the intensity of their workouts over the months so that the load on their knees stayed moderate.

Bottom line: Find a type of exercise that you like and can comfortably do. A physical therapist can help you individualize a pro­gram for your needs, including strength training and aerobic (cardio) exercise.

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