Anyone can come up with reasons not to work out, but for those who struggle with arthritis, joint pain seems like a pretty valid excuse. Studies have found, however, that arthritis patients who exercise more often are actually able to reduce their day-to-day joint pain more so than those who do not exercise regularly. Dr. Christopher Parker, chief of rheumatology at Austin Diagnostic Clinic, explains the intricate relationship between exercise and arthritis.*
What’s the most common misconception your patients have about arthritis?
One thing I hear all the time, that's not true, is that only old people can get arthritis. Kids can get arthritis. It’s not the 'wear and tear' kind but they definitely can have it. That therefore means that you can get arthritis when you get a little bit older. You could get it in your 20s, 30s, 40s or your 50s. It’s true that 'wear and tear' arthritis happens when you get older but there's lots of other kinds of arthritis that even young people can get.
If you’re diagnosed at a younger age, how can you lead an active lifestyle?
People often say, 'Well, because my joints hurt when I exercise or walk, I suspect that means I shouldn't do it.' Not true. I'm constantly trying to deal with that misconception as well. I tell people that this is an area of medicine that actually has been well studied. We find that time and time again, people who exercise and have arthritis are more functional compared to non-exercising peers. Lots of different exercises have been studied in this situation—walking, swimming, biking and weight training all have good data to support that people are more functional and joints don't deteriorate [more quickly].”
What are some suggestions for managing pain while increasing your physical activity?
Don't be super aggressive at the beginning. In fact, at the starting point, it might take you more time to change into your workout clothes than you spend working out. It’s okay. No. 1 is starting slow. No. 2 is, the worse arthritis we have, the longer warm-up time we might need.
How can you prevent “wear and tear,” A.K.A. osteoarthritis?
What we know about risk factors for the development of osteoarthritis, the wear and tear kind, is this; If you put abnormal stressors on your joints, you can generate osteoarthritis faster. Everything has to do with gravity. If you deal with gravity as a 350 pound person, compared to a 160 pound person, don't be surprised if those knees and hips wear out faster than your lighter peers. A non-modifiable risk factor, naturally, is trauma. Doing things where you could break bones, where they could crack into the joints, is going to get you worn down. Collision sports, like football, are an example.”
*Interview lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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