There is nothing worse than feeling like your body isn’t working right, especially when you remember a time when things were different. Joint pain, specifically, can be a real hassle. Still, despite the aches, it’s important that you make time for regular movement. The right types of exercises and workouts can help relieve joint pain and build muscle strength.
I would know. A few years back, I was super into CrossFit, and was excited to participate in my first CrossFit Open. During one of the workouts, I went to do a movement that required me to lift a barbell over my head, and immediately felt something tweak in my lower back. After consulting with a physical therapist and getting an MRI, the diagnosis wasn’t exactly awesome: Lower back arthritis, triggered between my L4 and L5.
Thankfully, I’m back to functioning in tip-top shape. But I, too, went through a time where I needed to drastically modify my workout routine to accommodate sensitive joints.
“Sensitive joints can be caused by a number of factors,” Anne Marie Bierman, PT, DPT, SCS, CMTPT at Athletico Physical Therapy, tells SheKnows. “Arthritis is one of the most common joint problems we see in patients, and it can affect any joint in the body. While genes can play a role, previous injury and obesity also play a big role.”
Bierman also notes the growing foundation of research about the area of pain neuroscience, and how our brains interpret pain. “Two people’s arthritic knees may look exactly the same on an X-ray, but one person may have minimal pain and decent mobility, while the other person may have significant pain and poor mobility,” she says.
“Similarly, some people with normal imaging may have pain that is a 10/10 on a pain scale,” Bierman says. “If we can teach people how their brain interprets pain, research shows they will feel less pain, have less fear, and move better in spite of what their image may say.”
Still, pain is pain. Which means that you, too, may be looking for some advice as to what the best way to get active is for you — in the wake of an uncomfortable situation. Lauren Lobert, DPT, OMPT, CSCS and owner of APEX Physical Therapy, suggests leaning into workouts that have a minimal amount of pounding or compressive forces.
Words to the wise: People with joint pain should consult with their healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine. “Being movement experts, physical therapists are uniquely positioned to develop a new exercise routine for patients with joint pain, prescribing an appropriate, all-inclusive program and ensuring it is performed with good understanding of his or her limitations,” says Bierman.
In addition, frequency, intensity and duration are also important things to consider for individuals with joint pain. Dosing exercise appropriately over the course of the week can help minimize any joint pain flares, advises Bierman, and depending on the type of exercise, an appropriate warm-up and cool-down should be considered. Here, we offer up some smart workouts for individuals suffering with sensitive joints and joint pain — whether you have Rheumatoid arthritis, are modifying through an injury or have any other reason to pay careful attention to the strain on your joints.
Now is the perfect time to get in the pool. “Depending on the severity of symptoms, aquatic workouts can be a great way for people to start moving,” says Bierman.
There are many ways to integrate yourself into this way of activity, whether it be by simply swimming laps at a local community pool or signing up for aqua aerobics or other swim classes at a YMCA or gym. Research shows that swimming is just as effective as walking to relieve pain and improve quality of life for people with knee osteoarthritis (involving long-term wear of the joints) and fibromyalgia.
Before you say “hey, wait!” let the research speak for itself. Research, including a 2016 study from the American College of Rheumatology, shows that runners actually have better knees because their body adapts and has thicker and healthier cartilage.
But experts caution hitting the pavement for the first time if you experience joint pain. “If you are not a runner, it is not smart to start running to help improve the strength of your knees,” cautions Lobert.
As far as activity goes, yoga is about as safe as it gets. Research shows that yoga is a safe form of traditional care for health problems, as injuries are extremely uncommon. Gentle yoga is an excellent practice to add to your routine if you regularly experience joint pain. Before partaking in a class, make sure to let the instructor know where you experience discomfort. This way, they can offer up suggestions to make your practice more enjoyable. It’s encouraged to lean into the use of props, like blocks or straps, to individualize your experience as-needed.
Strength training is the best thing you can do to help your joint pain. “If you are unable to do this in weight bearing like squats or lunges, then start in non-weight bearing with things such as leg extension and leg press machines,” suggests Lobert. Make sure to avoid starting with more intense strengthening like jump squats or other hopping, running or jumping until you are stronger.
Hopping on the bike is a great low-impact way to get in some cardio while also taking care of your joints, specifically your knees. Upon walking into a spin class, make sure to chat with the instructor to get a proper set-up on the stationary bike. A poor set-up (like riding in a too-high seat) could result in otherwise-preventable complications.
A version of this article was previously published in August 2018.
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