When our joints hurt, our instinct whispers "don't move." Yet our muscles weaken from not being used enough. When weak, they can't support our weight. This increases pressure on the joints and causes greater pain.
"The muscles are what help to bear the stress on the joint," says Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. To break this damaging cycle, turn to strength training.
You'll find that you can actually ease joint pain by building strong muscles. That's not all. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you burn while at rest, which helps you stay at a healthy weight. Also, strength training may reduce your risk for osteoporosis (brittle bones). "The stronger your muscles are, the less likely you are to injure yourself" if you take a spill, Rubin says.
Before starting to do strength training with free weights or a machine, you should talk to your doctor to find out what kind of program is best for you, and you may want to have an instructor supervise your workout rather than do it on your own. Of all exercises, the risk for injury is greatest with weightlifting.
If you lift weights the wrong way, or try to lift too much too soon, you could tear a muscle or get tendonitis (painful inflammation of the tendon). What's more, if you're not working all the muscle groups equally, your posture and balance can be thrown off. So it's a good idea to have someone teach you how to do it properly.
There are more plusses to working with an instructor than there are minuses, so don't scratch strength training off your list yet.
Geri Neuberger, a nursing professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, recently did a study on older men and women in which one group exercised with a trainer three times a week. "They got pretty attached to that person," she says. In addition to the bond you might develop with your trainer, you could make new friends if you work out with a group.
"We all get sloppy and lazy," Rubin says. If you have someone to supervise your workout, you will be less likely to cut corners and do your exercises the wrong way. "When you're in a class you tend to do what the other people are doing," Neuberger adds.
In general, you should do strength training exercises two or three times a week, not every day. You need to have at least one day off between workouts so your muscles can rest. You should work with free weights as well as with machines because slight differences in the way your muscles are exercised lead to better results.
Keep in mind that getting results from strength training doesn't mean you have to end up with legs like tree trunks and biceps that tear your shirtsleeves. If you gain enough strength to do things like climb stairs and carry groceries with less pain, your efforts will have been worthwhile.
To get started with strength training, contact your local Arthritis Foundation office, YMCA, YWCA or senior center. They may offer a program, or be able to direct you to a well-regarded gym.