You’ve likely been spending more time in your home than usual for most of 2020, especially if you live with an underlying condition like arthritis. Research shows that rheumatic disease patients have been isolating more strictly than the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, this may also lead to less time getting physical activity, which can take a big toll on your health when you’re already prone to joint pain and stiffness and fatigue.
The majority of arthritis patients reported reduced levels of physical activity — and many reported lower energy levels and worsening symptoms — in a 12-week survey of 264 people with inflammatory arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis) that’s part of an ongoing study from the University of East Anglia.
“Symptoms such as pain flare-ups and stiffness were in many cases put down to reduced activity and exercise,” lead researcher Alex MacGregor said in a statement.
Being inactive can lead to a vicious cycle. When you’re inactive, it may cause your arthritis symptoms to get worse and also lead to weight gain. That extra weight, in turn, can put more pressure on the joints of the body and spine.
“It’s difficult during this time when a lot of people are stuck at home or quarantined,” says Joseph Bax, DO, Pain Management and Rehabilitation Specialist in the Department of Orthopedics at Mount Sinai in New York. “However, there are some simple things you can still do at home to help slow down the progression of arthritis.”
There’s no need for jumping jacks or even splurging on fitness equipment for a home gym. Here are seven simple ways you can get moving more throughout the day.
1. Add stretching to your routine
You likely already know how important stretching is for soothing your arthritis symptoms. It’s also a good way to get blood flowing when you’re inside all day. When you don’t move as much, your joints are less likely to maintain their full range of motion. With time, the surrounding muscles can shorten and make it more difficult to keep moving, per Harvard Medical Health Publishing.
“Simple things, such as stretching to maintain the range of motion in your joints and to make sure they don’t get stiff, are very helpful,” says Dr. Bax. “When you are going through a full range of motion, you want to make sure the muscles that move those joints are properly warmed up. Stretching is a way to accomplish that.”
Schedule time into your day when you can stretch with less pain. For instance, if your joints are stiffest in the morning, try stretching after lunch or before bed instead. A hot shower or bath can help relax stiff joints before you stretch. To get started, try these gentle stretches for arthritis.
2. Pace around when you’re on the phone
If you need to take phone calls for work or get stuck on hold with a customer service agent, try not to sit still. Walk around your house, take a stroll in your yard, or go upstairs and back down again.
“Every time I’m on the phone, I pace around,” says Lynn Ludmer, MD, Medical Director of Rheumatology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “That can add up to 3,000 steps during a phone call.”
If you find a lot of your communication has switched to video conferencing like Zoom or similar programs, ask friends or colleagues if they wouldn’t mind sometimes switching to audio-only if video isn’t necessary.
3. Clean a small section of your home
Whether you have an ambitious project on your to-do list (like reorganizing your closet) or are simply trying to keep your home tidy, cleaning up bit by bit every day can help you stay active — and prevent you from overexerting yourself and causing injury from doing too much at once.
“Have a goal in mind, and remember that it’s okay to take a break and do more the next day,” says Dr. Bax. “You don’t want to overdo it, because the next thing you know you may have done too much and you’re going to be in pain.”
All kinds of physical activity (even cleaning!) can burn calories, get your blood pumping, and strengthen muscles. A 150-pound person can burn about 150 calories per hour by doing household chores, per the American Cancer Society. That said, even five minutes of cleaning at a time can add up. Here are 10 surprising household items you can use to make tidying up with arthritis less painful.
4. Set a timer when you’re working
If you’re working at home during COVID-19, you may find yourself rolling out of bed and going straight to the couch or your desk with your laptop.
“The next thing you know, the day gets away from you and you’ve been sitting for hours,” says Dr. Bax. “If you set a timer for every hour to get up and walk around, you can break that cycle and taking a walking break becomes more of a routine.”
You might even consider investing in a standing desk if it’s possible for you. Then you can step in place as you work to keep moving, adds Dr. Ludmer.
5. Take gentle workout classes online
There’s no shortage of workout videos available on YouTube or other sites, including those that are gentle and just five to 10 minutes — making them perfect to do during quick work breaks or while you have dinner in the oven. Take a calming yoga class or learn a few functional exercises.
Exercise is crucial for everyone, and particularly if you have arthritis. It will increase your flexibility and strength, combat fatigue, and reduce your joint pain. Even moderate exercise can reduce arthritis symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic.
Depending on what type of exercise your doctor has approved, you might search for YouTube videos with keywords like “low-impact workout” or “joint-friendly workout.” Videos with these keywords typically avoid jumping and other movements that are more strenuous on your joints. The Australia-based physical therapy clinic BJC Health also offers several videos tailored to those with rheumatic disease.
We also asked CreakyJoints members for recommendations for arthritis-friendly online workouts. Here are some favorites:
- FitnessBlender.com (“Many of their workouts are very gentle and modifications are given,” says Cathy K. on Facebook.)
- Do Yoga with Me (“Loads of free classes and great instructors,” says @Kat_Hopps on Twitter.)
- Jane Fonda walking cardio workouts on YouTube (“Walking Cardio Level 1 and Level 2 are manageable and can be adapted,” suggests @Newsfnd on Twitter.)
- Yoga with Adrienne
- Ask Doctor Jo
Take it slow, and if needed, use heat before you begin to relax your joints and muscles. You can also apply ice afterward if the activity causes joint swelling, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Of course, it’s always important to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen or trying heat or ice treatment.
Here’s how you can prepare for a rheumatology telehealth visit during the coronavirus pandemic.
6. Walk around during commercials
Commercials — remember those? These built-in breaks are perfect for moving around. Instead of fast-forwarding or sitting through commercials, walk around the living room or go refill your bottle of water.
“You don’t have to go far, and even walking in place works,” says Dr. Ludmer.
Of course, when you’re enjoying a Netflix marathon, you’ll have to be conscious of scheduling breaks or setting a timer to remind yourself to get up and move. If you’re drinking plenty of water, frequent bathroom breaks will also remind you to get up regularly.
7. Wear a pedometer
You may have stashed your pedometer away at the beginning of the pandemic, or even stopped checking your phone’s step counter. But having a record of how much you’re moving each day may surprise you and encourage you to get up for breaks more often.
“You have to be cognizant of how much you’re exercising, and one of the ways to do that is either by using your cell phone or a pedometer to see how many steps you take,” says Dr. Ludmer. “Steps are really easy to do at home, and they can be done at any time.”
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Exercise helps ease arthritis pain and stiffness. Mayo Clinic. December 19, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/in-depth/arthritis/art-20047971.
Household Chores That Burn Calories. American Cancer Society. June 3, 2020. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/household-chores-that-burn-calories.html.
How COVID-19 Lockdown Has Impacted People With Arthritis. University of East Anglia. July 10, 2020. https://www.uea.ac.uk/news/-/article/how-covid-19-lockdown-has-impacted-people-with-arthritis.
Interview with Joseph Bax, DO, Pain Management and Rehabilitation Specialist in the Department of Orthopedics at Mount Sinai in New York
Interview with Lynn Ludmer, MD, Medical Director of Rheumatology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Stretching to help arthritis pain. Harvard Medical School. Accessed October 30, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/stretching-to-help-arthritis-pain.