Exploring Physical Activity and Arthritis

Physical Activities, Injuries and Arthritis

Physical activity and arthritis

When it hurts to move, your first instinct might be to completely stop. But it’s not that simple. Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to reduce pain and improve mobility for people with arthritis. 

You may have heard the saying, “motion is lotion.” Movement and physical activity have many benefits for managing arthritis symptoms, including joint pain. 

A person with medium-dark skin practicing yoga on an exercise mat outdoors, surrounded by grass and trees.How does this work? Part of the answer lies in the cartilage – the flexible connective tissue that protects and cushions the bones in many joints. Cartilage needs to absorb nutrients and eliminate waste from the surrounding joint fluid. As you move your joints, you’re ‘feeding’ them by compressing and expanding the cartilage like a sponge, sending blood flow to the moving areas, helping it get what it needs to stay healthy. 

The less you move your joints, the more stiff and painful they become. The muscles that protect the joints also become weaker, leaving you less able to protect them and more prone to injury. Physical activity supports healthy joints, reducing pain and other symptoms. 

Here are just some of the known benefits of physical activity that can make a meaningful difference in the lives of people living with arthritis: 

  • Less pain and stiffness 

  • Less fatigue and better sleep 

  • More strength in joint muscles, cartilage, bone, and ligaments 

  • Better balance and less risk of falls 

  • Maintenance of a healthy body weight and decreased risk of many other chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease, stroke, diabetes) 

  • Improved mood and ability to cope with stress 

  • Opportunities to be social 

When it comes to physical activity for people with arthritis, any movement is better than no movement.

Injuries from activity and arthritis

Exercise and other forms of physical activity can help manage arthritis. You might be wondering, though, whether physical activity can cause arthritis or make it feel worse. 

A close up of a patient with light skin holding a weight in their left hand. A physiotherapist with light skin is assisting the patient with their exercise.Sports injuries to joints like the knee can put you at a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) later in life. When the injury happens in youth, this can also lead to osteoarthritis at a younger age than is often expected. This can be due to joint damage as well as weight gain resulting from lower activity levels after injury. 

With any type of new physical activity, some discomfort or soreness can be normal and doesn’t mean that activity is damaging your joints. Many people with arthritis also become accustomed to living with some degree of pain. Listen to your body and consider whether any pain you experience during or after physical activity is usual or unusual for you. If your joints hurt more than usual and it takes more than two hours to settle down to usual pain levels after being active, you might need to modify that activity. Increasing your activity level gradually and pacing it with how you’re feeling is also recommended.  

Before starting a new physical activity or exercise routine, we recommend consulting with your healthcare team or a specialized professional like a physiotherapist to make sure you’re protecting your joints, modifying activities optimally, working with any past or new injuries, and on the path to more mobility and less pain.

How much physical activity do I need? 

A person with dark skin, wearing a harness, climbing an indoor climbing wall.Several health organizations have considered available evidence and experiences to create formal recommendations for a healthy level of physical activity. These targets may be challenging to meet at times, especially for those with an episodic chronic disease like arthritis. But working towards any of these goals can have beneficial impacts on your health, and consulting with your healthcare team can help you come up with the best goals for your specific situation. 

In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines on physical health and sedentary behaviour (like sitting and resting). They recommended that all adults (including those with chronic conditions or disability) aim to participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week, participate in strength training twice per week, and to try to limit sedentary time. The guidelines emphasize that “Every Move Counts” and the importance of muscle strengthening for increasing health and wellness, along with balance activities for people 65 and over to help prevent falls. 

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) takes an even more integrated approach, with unique recommendations reflecting the importance of balancing physical activity, light activity like walking or wheeling, sedentary time, and good quality sleep. The CSEP 24-Hour Movement Guidelines encourage Canadians to “Make Your Whole Day Matter” and for adults to aim for the following: 

  • Move more, aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate (like when you’re starting to breathe heavily but still able to have a conversation) to vigorous (breathing heavy enough that it would be difficult to hold a conversation) aerobic physical activity accumulated over a week, and several hours a day of light activity like standing or slow walking. 

  • Participate in muscle strengthening activities twice per week. 

  • Try to limit sedentary time (e.g., watching TV, working at a desk, driving) to eight hours or less and to break up sedentary time as often as possible. 

  • Aim for seven to nine hours a day of good quality sleep. 

Overall, the balance of moving, resting the joints, and getting a good night’s sleep can have great health benefits. Remember that the recommended physical activity time can be broken up into short periods, which can help manage joint symptoms and can also help break up long periods of sitting. 

Sectional divider