Small Steps, Big Changes continued...
Losing weight cannot repair the damage that’s already been done to your joints by arthritis, but in addition to decreasing your pain, it can also help to slow down the further progression of the disease. One study found that knee osteoarthritis in obese men would decrease by 21.5% if they lost enough weight to be categorized as merely overweight; for women, arthritis would decrease by 31%.
“The damage is already done, and arthritis is a progressive process,” says Westrich. “But weight loss can be tremendously helpful in alleviating pain, allowing greater function, and prolonging the period of time before someone needs joint replacement surgery.”
And if you haven’t developed arthritis but you’re worried about it, losing excess weight can significantly lower your risk. Research has shown that over 10 years, losing 10 pounds may cut your risk of developing arthritis by more than 50%.
Making It Happen
The best way to lose weight, any doctor will tell you, is to eat less, eat healthy foods, and exercise more. But while someone with arthritis can start to change their eating habits in pretty much the same way that someone without the disease can, having arthritis makes exercise a little more complicated.
High-impact exercise, like running, jogging, and aerobics, can put too much stress on the joints, so doctors recommend against these activities. “They can hasten the arthritis process and cause injury,” says Westrich.
Instead, Vangsness recommends that his patients pursue one of three types of exercise that are particularly well suited for people with arthritis:
- Cycling (especially on a recumbent stationary bike, which is easier on knees and hips than a standard bike)
- Elliptical trainers
“These all get your heart rate up without putting any stress on the knee,” he says. “The buoyancy of water helps to alleviate pain during water exercise. And working out using a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer can help strengthen key muscles like the quadriceps. If your quadriceps are strong, that can cushion the ‘heel strike’ moment when you step forward while walking, and decrease pain, as well.”
He adds that some of his extremely obese patients have gotten their weight loss started through gastric bypass or gastric banding surgery. “They start peeling off the pounds, and this tremendous loss of weight really knocks down their pain,” he says. “It’s like a whole new knee. And after losing that weight, they can exercise where they couldn’t before, strengthen their muscles, and further reduce pain.”