Anyone living with arthritis or joint pain knows these conditions can give you a feeling that you’re not living life to the fullest, no matter how much you want to.
Whether it’s the stiffness or tenderness of your joints that stops you enjoying activities with family and friends, or muscle weakness and inflammation getting in the way of simply getting out and about, it’s not surprising you might feel like you’re missing out.
But avoiding getting moving could be the worst thing you do for your joint condition – as well as robbing you of the chance to try new things and make new friends.
“People believe if your joints are sore that you shouldn’t exercise but research has shown that exercise for joint pain is really, really beneficial,” Carissa Evans, an exercise physiologist at Fernwood Fitness, says.
“The old saying ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ definitely applies here.”
There are numerous pieces of research that show the big benefits exercise can deliver for people with musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, including reducing the damage the condition can do to cartilage and easing pain.
When it comes to which exercise is the most effective, Evans says there’s no black and white answer.
“All exercise at the end of the day is going to be beneficial,” she says. “The more blood flow that’s going around the body, the less those joints are going to hurt.”
Aerobic training is a great place for women with joint pain to start and includes exercises such as cycling, swimming and uphill walking. These activities get your heart rate up and increase blood flow around the body, which, as Evans points out, can ease joint pain.
Exercising in water – known as hydrotherapy – is another great way of getting moving without putting extra strain on your joints, because the warm water helps support your body. Strength and resistance exercises that encourage your muscles to work harder than usual are also important.
“As an exercise physiologist, I would definitely recommend adding in some resistance training because I find with my clients that that tends to get the biggest benefits,” Evans says.
“If somebody hasn’t really had much experience in the gym before, machines are great in that sense because they’re easy to use…and they’re pretty self-explanatory.”
Other types of resistance training can include lifting weights or using resistance bands or the body’s own weight through push-ups and squats.
“The stronger we can get our muscles, theoretically the less force should be on the joint itself there,” Evans explains.
Fernwood Fitness, where Evans helps many women with arthritis get used to exercise, is set up to accommodate a wide range of physical ability, so its members have plenty of choice in which type of exercise suits them best.
Fernwood’s also Australia’s longest running female-only fitness club chain, so even newcomers to the world of gyms find themselves in a supportive atmosphere among other women with the same health concerns and goals.
Simone Meagher from Fernwood Fitness Preston in Victoria says exercising at her local Fernwood club revolutionised her thinking about her genetic arthritis.
“I had a very fixed mindset about my body and what it was capable of but through weight training, I can work on my bone density and I can also work on muscles to support my spine as best as I can,” she says.
As someone who lives with joint pain, Simone knows what it’s like to come up against physical activities that are challenging, but believes perseverance is key.
“A lot of that’s been about developing training that works with your limitations and then changing those limitations so they become strengths,” she says.
“Now I’m able to do things that 12 months ago, I wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing.”
Although you may struggle on your own to find the right exercise to target a specific pain or lack of flexibility or strength, expert Evans suggests contacting a personal trainer or exercise physiologist like herself because they’re trained to help you manage your condition.
They might suggest that you do some one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer so your exercise program can be tailored to your abilities.
“With the right professional, you can see some right results and start to decrease the pain that you are in, or at least prevent it from getting worse,” Evans says.
Once you’re comfortable with exercise, you’ll be able to get more out of the group classes led by qualified instructors. For example, Fernwood offers classes that are great for people with joint and arthritis pain. And Lite Pace classes are ideal for beginners because they provide the foundation for building aerobic fitness and muscle conditioning.
“They run multiple times a week and we encourage over-55s to come along,” Evans says.
“It’s low impact, it’s designed to get some resistance training in. We also include a lot of balance work, which is really important, as the older you get, the more you find you need it.”
The Australian Government recommends that older Australians do at least 30 minutes of moderate physical every day. Evans says she aims to help her clients at Fernwood build their comfort with exercise up to five half-an-hour sessions at the gym each week, including two resistance training sessions.
“With resistance training, you do want to come on in and do at least two to three times a week to get the best results,” she adds.
Simone, meanwhile, says she hasn’t looked back since challenging herself to get moving.
“I’m giving myself the best shot at a healthy, wonderful life,” she says.
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