Exercise is Medicine for OSTEOARTHRITIS

Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common conditions experienced by Australians, being diagnosed in over a third of people over the age of 75. Also referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is the chronic condition which describes the breakdown of supportive cartilage between the joints. This results in the bones rubbing together which can lead to pain, swelling and stiffness, most commonly affecting the hands, spine, hips, knees and ankles. An effective recommendation for helping OA pain and function is exercises designed to strengthen and support the muscles and joints that are affected.  

Benefits of Exercise

  • Positive effect on the progressive decrease in strength and joint range of motion
  • Strengthens bones, tendons and ligaments that support the joint
  • Decreased pain
  • Strengthen the muscles around the joint
  • Reducing joint stiffness.

One of the most notable complaints in OA that exercise can have a positive effect on is the progressive decrease in strength and motion through the affected joints as time passes. During physical activities, muscles, tendons and ligaments work to support the joints through the movements. The more these movements are performed and trained through exercise, the stronger these supporting structures become, and the more strenuous the activities we can tolerate become. Conversely, the less we move and challenge our supporting structures, the less they can support. In OA, it’s common to see people who have pain in their joints refrain from or minimise the activities they perform that use that joint and might cause some pain. However, it’s in these situations where it’s the most important for exercise that strengthens the bones, tendons and ligaments supporting that joint, to be performed and maintain function.

A very common concern in OA is that exercise could cause pain and “aggravate” the arthritic joints, however, it’s been shown that it can actually decrease pain in the long term. Exercise can strengthen the muscle around the joints, which helps take stress off the joints while also reducing joint stiffness and building flexibility and endurance. Exercise can also help manage body weight, improve mood and help sleep, giving you more energy to move about and do the activities that you want to do.

What sort of exercise should you be doing?

It’s important to perform both aerobic exercise for fitness and endurance, and resistance exercises for strength in order to gain the full benefit of exercise. Aerobic exercises that don’t put a lot of impact on the joints, including walking,

biking, swimming and water aerobics, are a great way to exercise joints and muscles without causing discomfort on the joints. It’s recommended for the best results to try to get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, even if that’s just through breaking it into 3 10-minute chunks for 5 days a week.

Resistance exercises that challenge muscles and joints are recommended at least twice a week to strengthen and improve the function of the joints. It should be noted that while taking some exercises through a full range might cause some discomfort, it’s important to exercise through as large a range as you can tolerate in order to maintain motion through the joint and get the full benefits of exercise.