If you live with arthritis, you know how it can sap your enjoyment of even your best-loved activities. Tenderness and stiffness around the joints, inflammation and muscle weakness make movement more difficult and can dampen your mood too.
But while there’s no cure for arthritis, there’s masses of research into simple lifestyle changes that could help people with arthritis live with less pain.
Some of the latest findings show the potential for certain types of food and exercise to have a real and positive impact on quality of life for people with arthritis. But before embarking on an exercise regime, taking new supplements, or making changes to your diet, it’s important to consult your health professional.
There’s growing evidence to suggest that exercise can ease the pain of arthritis, but it’s not about lifting heavy weights or running marathons.
Research from around the world including Australia has found that older adults who have been diagnosed with musculoskeletal conditions including arthritis often experience an improvement in their condition and quality of life after completing low-impact exercise programs (usually involving regular exercise over a number of weeks).
In one study from New York, researchers measured changes after an eight-week program of one low-impact exercise class each week. The success of the program was judged by the number of participants who were able to undertake activities they’d previously been unable to. They found that the number who could climb several flights of stairs increased by an amazing 88 per cent; . there was a 69 per cent increase in the number who could lift and carry their groceries; and a 67 per cent rise in those who could bend, kneel or stoop.
There are many types of low-impact exercise – swimming, tai chi and exercises done in water or on a chair are just some – and it’s important to choose not only the one you like best but that’s also the most appropriate for your condition, which is something a health professional can advise on.
‘Chair yoga’, for example, is a low-impact exercise that’s been shown by researchers to help reduce pain in the ankles, feet, hips and knees in people with osteoarthritis.
Researchers at the Florida Atlantic University found that people who attended two, 45- minute yoga sessions a week for eight weeks reported not only less pain and improved walking speed during the eight-week program, but that pain interfered less with their daily activities for three months after the program ended.
The American College of Rheumatology says more broadly that although people with arthritis commonly limit their physical activities, becoming inactive risks making their ability to tolerate pain worse, as well as weakening their muscles, causing joints to stiffen and impacting balance.
Being active, with the right exercises, is vital for anyone with arthritis, it says. But the college cautions that anyone who has inactive, is suffering pain, has reduced joint motion or muscle strength or is recovering from surgery should start with therapeutic exercise prescribed by a health professional.
Research also suggests that diet can play a vital role in managing arthritis symptoms.
Scientists created a list of foods that may help patients manage rheumatoid arthritis, on the back of a major review of the evidence regarding foods believed to have beneficial effects on signs and symptoms of arthritis. Foods including blueberries, pomegranates, ginger, turmeric, olive oil, and green tea were among the foods that may help ease inflammation, stiffness and pain, they found.
Other research indicates it may be possible to ease arthritis with more common dietary staples. For example, low-fat plain yoghurt and oily fish appear to help ease or prevent symptoms of joint inflammation and tenderness that are experienced by people with arthritis.
Scientists are continually examining new food and exercise options that could help people with arthritis; a recent piece of research from Europe indicates, for example, that an extract of brown algae may slow down the cartilage degeneration that happens in arthritic joints.