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Pain Management Health Center

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What Exercise Can Do for Your Arthritis

With exercise, you strengthen muscles, reduce stiffness, improve flexibility, and boost your mood and self-esteem.
By Amanda MacMillan
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

If you have arthritis, exercise can help control aches and pains and even improve other symptoms. Try to stick to a regular fitness plan. Doing so can help you feel better.

With osteoarthritis, the cartilage that cushions the joints starts to wear down. This causes pain and stiffness in locations like the knees, hips, feet, shoulders, elbows, hands, low back, and neck.

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"A decade or two ago, when people had an arthritis flare-up, we treated them with aspirin and told them not to get out of bed until it got better. Now we know it's much better for people to remain as active as they can,” says Kim Huffman, MD, PhD, an expert in muscles, activity, and arthritis at the Duke University Medical Center.

How does it help? You can look for these six benefits:

  1. Less pain and swelling. "When you exercise, you release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which are like natural pain relievers," says A. Lynn Millar, PhD, chair of the department of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University.
  2. Easier movement. "As people become stronger and more flexible, they're better able to do things like get up the stairs, walk around the grocery store, and function normally," Millar says.
  1. Better blood flow. When you move and bend a joint, blood flows to that area bringing nutrients needed for strong bones and cartilage and sweeping out chemicals that cause inflammation.

    If you avoid using a joint, on the other hand, it can become even more stiff or damaged.
  1. More joint support. Exercise strengthens the muscles and tendons around your joints so they can support you better.

    These benefits add up. In one study, people with hip arthritis who did strength training and stretching twice a week were 44% less likely to need hip replacement surgery six years later compared to those who were not routinely active.
  1. Help with your weight. "Being overweight is hard on your joints," Millar says. Regular exercise is part of reaching and keeping your weight in a healthy range.
  2. Whole-body benefits. Your heart, lungs, bones, brain -- every part of you craves activity. Many people with arthritis are also at risk for heart disease and other health conditions, so it’s extra important to work on your fitness.

Once you take the first step, you may be surprised how good it feels.


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