How to exercise safely with arthritis, as research shows physical activity may reduce fatigue

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A new study potentially offers hope for people with inflammatory rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and axial spondylitis.

Researchers found that patients who participated in an exercise program significantly improved their level of fatigue.

Around 800,000 people suffer from these conditions in the UK, with 80% saying they struggle with extreme fatigue on a daily basis.

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The study, conducted by the Universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow and funded by the charity Versus Arthritis, found that the energy benefits continued for six months after the 30-week course ended, with further benefits reported , including improved sleep, mental health, and quality. of life.

Dr Neha Issar-Brown, Director of Research and Health Intelligence at Versus Arthritis, said: “Fatigue and chronic pain go hand in hand as twin challenges for people with inflammatory rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. But fatigue tends not to respond to medications for these conditions, and often goes unnoticed by clinicians.

“There is an urgent and unmet need for more evidence-based interventions, including better access to non-drug treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapies and sustained physical activity, so that more people with rheumatic diseases can maintain their independence, stay at work, and enjoy better mental health, which we know these conditions can sorely take away.

Here’s everything you need to know about exercising with arthritis…

How does exercise help fight fatigue?

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“Exercise helps with fatigue by increasing your ability to exercise,” suggests Peter Evans, advanced physiotherapist at Ascenti (ascenti.co.uk). “It almost seems counterintuitive, but if you do something multiple times, you build up energy reserves to make it normal.”

That’s why it’s important to keep gradually increasing the amount of physical activity you try. “If someone only walks a mile and never goes any further, it doesn’t increase their ability to walk more than a mile,” says Evans.

What are the best types of exercises for people with arthritis?

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“Rather than the type of exercise, it’s usually timing,” says Evans. “[Meaning] start with a short time and gradually increase.

He recommends walking as the best option for beginners, starting with a short walk on your route as little as three or four houses away.

“See how your joints react to this. If you get no reaction, the next day or the next time you do it, add three or four houses and then come back. It can be as simple as that.

He also advises doing “some weight-bearing exercises at the gym or at home, but again, it depends on pain levels and which joints are affected in these patients.”

You don’t need to have a lot of fancy equipment – things like water bottles or cans of beans can be used instead of dumbbells – and you may want to consult your GP if you have questions or concerns.

If arthritis primarily affects your lower joints, you can adapt your activity to reduce pressure in these areas. Evans says, “If running isn’t an option, then [try] weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, stationary cycling, or using the elliptical machine.

How much activity should you do each week?

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There’s no hard and fast rule as to how much exercise an arthritis patient should do each week – it’s about finding what helps rather than hurts your condition.

If you’re doing the right kind of exercise safely, Evans suggests, it “won’t make your condition worse, but exercise can make your symptoms worse — that’s a very important definition.” One of the dangers is that if you tell someone, “You can exercise,” they walk away and [walk] two miles, then they’ll be in pain for the next three or four days and say, “Exercise hurts me.”

Katie Knapton, physiotherapist founder of Physio Fast Online (physiofastonline.co.uk), also encourages the slow and steady approach. “The benefits of activity are huge, but can initially increase symptoms — that doesn’t mean you have to give it up,” she says. “Always introduce a new activity slowly. It is often good to have a rest day in between.

And remember, it’s okay to take breaks when you need them or change your routine if your arthritis kicks in.

“If you have a flare-up of symptoms, low-impact exercises are best,” says Knapton, who recommends activities like swimming, water aerobics, gentle stretching and tai chi. “If you have an extremely swollen joint, calm down, or if it’s hot and swollen, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice.”

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