DEAR DOCTOR K: I have arthritis, which makes it difficult for me to get up and around. But I’d still like to exercise regularly. Any suggestions?
DEAR READER: Many of my patients with arthritis have the same question. They want to exercise regularly, but they have a medical condition that interferes with their mobility. Or their joints are so sore and stiff from arthritis that they have difficulty getting around. I’ll tell you what I tell them: The more you move, the more your ability to exercise will grow.
I spoke to Kailin Collins, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. She recommends the following for people with mobility-limiting conditions:
SWIMMING is a great option for people with arthritis and limited mobility. That’s because the buoyancy of water takes the load off your joints. Swimming in warm water particularly soothes sore joints.
BICYCLING is a great way to improve your aerobic fitness. Try a recumbent seat, which puts your body in a reclining position, making biking easier. Or try a restorator, or mini-cycle, bike. It sits on a U-shaped base, so you can pedal away without leaving your chair. Then set it on a table to work your arms.
SEATED STRENGTHENING EXERCISES. You can do a wide range of muscle-strengthening exercises while seated. Try arm raises, biceps curls or overhead presses with light weights. Put a medicine ball between your knees and squeeze it to work your inner thighs. Lift and lower one straight leg at a time. (I’ve put descriptions and illustrations of two seated strengthening exercises on my website, AskDoctorK.com.)
Stretching is important for improving flexibility and preventing injury. Stretch a few times a day and after every workout. Or try yoga, which both stretches and tones. Many community and senior centers offer chair yoga classes.
Finally, don’t forget balance exercises. Maintaining your balance is especially important for preventing falls when mobility is an issue.
As you start out, consider working with a professional. A physical therapist, for example, can design an individualized program that takes into consideration your limitations and exercise goals.
I realize you may be dubious about my basic message: Because you hurt too much to exercise, you should exercise regularly to hurt less. But it’s true — if you do the right exercises.
A patient of mine, a man in his 70s, once said to me: “I’ve been a couch potato all my life. I’ve been hearing that regular exercise was good for my health, probably since I was in kindergarten. But I never believed it. Now I believe it, but it’s too late: I just ache too much.”
I gave him the same advice I’ve given you. He looked at me like I was selling snake oil. But he agreed to try it — very slowly at first: seated exercises three times a week for 10 minutes a day.
Today he does 30 minutes on a stationary bicycle every day, plus seated strengthening exercises every day — both while watching TV. He feels more energetic, largely because he lives with less pain.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.