Research Confirms Exercise is Top "Prescription" for Arthritis

Elder man returning to good state of health

In the old days, seniors who were suffering from arthritis were advised to take it easy. Sit down most of the day so as not to stress your joints, well-meaning doctors would say. Sit in a rocking chair for easy, soothing motion, at the most. Rest your joints. If it hurts, don’t do it.

We know now that this was very bad advice. Multiple studies show that inactivity not only raises the risk of arthritis, but also leads to increased joint damage and pain when a person has arthritis. Exercise helps keep the joints lubricated and strengthens the muscles that support the joints. It also helps seniors maintain a healthy weight—one of the most important things we can do to be kind to our joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, “Exercise is the most effective non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in osteoarthritis.”

How much, and what type, of exercise is best for seniors with arthritis? Researchers from Northwestern University tracked the activity level of a group of people with arthritis. They reported, “As expected, more time spent in moderate or vigorous activity was associated with lower reports of disabilities, but researchers were pleased to find that greater time spent in light intensity activities also was related to fewer disabilities.” Said lead researcher Prof. Dorothy Dunlap, “We were delighted to see that more time spent during the day, simply moving your body, even at a light intensity, may reduce disability. Now people with health problems or physical limitations who cannot increase the intensity of their activity have a starting place in the effort to stay independent.”

Walking is often called the perfect exercise. Reporting on recent research, the American College of Rheumatology said, “Walking an additional 1,000 steps each day was associated with between a 16 percent to 18 percent reduction in incident functional limitation two years later. Walking less than 6,000 steps daily was the best threshold for identifying those who developed functional limitation.” 6,000 steps might sound like a lot, but it’s only about an hour of walking, and can be spread out over the course of a day.  

But exercising with arthritis isn’t a simple thing. If movement causes some discomfort, it can seem counterintuitive to keep doing it. And, some exercises may be bad for a person with arthritis. This all may lead to uncertainty and anxiety that tempts a person to head right back to that rocking chair.

Beginning an arthritis-friendly exercise program

The first step is to get a “prescription” for an exercise plan that’s right for a person’s particular type and degree of arthritis from the doctor or physical therapist. This will most likely include low-impact, joint-friendly activities from four main categories:

  • range-of-motion exercises to improve flexibility and relieve stiffness
  • strengthening exercises to help muscles support the joints
  • balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls
  • aerobic or endurance exercises to reduce swelling in some joints and help maintain a healthy weight

Seven ways home care helps

The next step is to stick with the exercise plan. For many seniors, this is where home care is a valuable partner. When arthritis, as well as other health conditions that are common in senior adults, make it hard to be safe and active at home, home care is a great addition to a senior’s health management regimen. Here are ways professionally trained caregivers help senior clients follow their healthcare provider’s exercise “prescription”:

Supervision and support for exercise at home. Even when seniors have been given the green light by their doctor to begin an exercise program, they are sometimes hesitant. It’s hard to change old habits of caution. But having a professional caregiver nearby provides the extra measure of confidence to take exercise to a new level—maybe even the recommended 6,000 steps. Caregivers help clients follow the exercise prescription, use weights or other special equipment, or play an exercise DVD or video.

Venturing outdoors. The doctor will most likely recommend walking as a great overall exercise, but it can be hard to stay motivated after you’ve walked around your own block a hundred times. Professional caregivers and clients can plan outings that provide exercise and a nice change of scenery. How about a trip to the park or zoo? Or a mall walk on blustery days, or just to go shopping?

Housekeeping, laundry and personal care. While these standard home care services might not seem like part of an exercise program, they are activities that can be hard for a person with arthritis. Living in a dirty home and wearing rumpled clothing can be depressing and tempt a person to just spend the day in front of the TV.

Preparing nutritious meals. When a person has stiffness of the fingers and other joints, it’s tempting to live on prepackaged foods. This can lead to an unhealthy weight gain—one of the top factors that worsens arthritis pain. Caregivers prepare meals and snacks that both meet the nutritional needs of clients and help them maintain a healthy weight.

Fall protection. The top impediment to exercise for people with arthritis is joint pain, but the fear of falling is a close second. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with arthritis are twice as likely to experience a fall injury. To reduce the risk of a fall, and to create confidence that the home environment is safe, trained caregivers are alert to remove clutter and other hazardous conditions that could cause a senior to trip.

Transportation to healthcare appointments and exercise class. Arthritis management often requires several different healthcare providers, and many seniors take part in special arthritis-friendly exercise classes, yoga or tai chi, balance training and other interventions. But arthritis can make it unsafe to drive. Professional caregivers take clients to all these appointments, and also help them remember instructions to better manage their healthcare.

Medication management. Analgesic and anti-inflammatory medications relieve pain and reduce inflammation, but it’s important to take them correctly. Home caregivers can provide medication reminders, pick up prescriptions, and help clients use pillboxes and other organization devices to keep track of prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Learn More

The Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org) is the sponsor of National Arthritis Awareness Month. Their website offers information about the benefits of exercise, including information about when it’s safe to work out with arthritis, and when patients should refrain. Above all, talk to your doctor if you have questions about your arthritis exercise program.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2016.