Walking with Arthritis

There are lots of reasons you should walk for exercise: You’ll burn calories, improve your balance, and boost your heart health. Your bones will get stronger and so will your muscles. Some research suggests that a 15-minute stroll can even help curb a sweet tooth.

And if you have arthritis, here are even more benefits of walking to add to the list. Research shows aerobic exercise can help ease pain and stiffness from arthritis. Walking may also help reduce your risk of disability, according a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed four years of data from more than 1,500 older adults who had symptoms of osteoarthritis in their knee, hip, ankle, or foot. They found that just one hour a week of brisk walking — or less than 10 minutes a day — allowed older adults to maintain their ability to perform daily tasks like getting dressed or safely cross a street before a traffic light walk signal changed. Another study suggests that people with osteoarthritis knee pain benefit most when they walk 6,000 or more steps per day.

Another bonus for people with arthritis: Regular brisk walking can boost your mood and help you sleep better, both of which can be challenges when you live with chronic pain and fatigue from arthritis.

Why Walking Is Good Exercise for Your Joints

It’s a low-impact exercise, for one — that means there is less stress on weight-bearing joints, like your hips, knees, and feet. Walking also helps:

Keep cartilage healthy

Low-impact exercise increases blood flow to cartilage, which helps cartilage get the nutrients it needs to cushion and protect the ends of bones in your joints. Plus, any movement helps lubricate your joints, which decreases pain and stiffness and increases range of motion.

Strengthen muscles

The stronger your muscles are, the more weight they can handle, and the better they can support and protect your joints. Taking some of the load off of worn-out or weakened joints can translate to a decrease in pain and stiffness, as well as easier motion.

Manage your weight

Extra pounds put more pressure and stress on weight-bearing joints, and can make inflammatory arthritis worse. Walking helps burn calories — and losing even just a few pounds can improve joint health. Here are more weight loss tips that can help people with arthritis.

Which is Better for Arthritis: Indoor or Outdoor Walking?

Outdoor walking engages more muscles, which increases blood flow to joints and other tissues, says Colleen Louw, PT, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. It can also be more social than walking inside on a treadmill, adds Louw, who is also a co-founder of the International Spine and Pain Institute. “Social interaction can have a positive impact on walking longer and decreasing pain,” she says.

But outdoor walking can also require you to walk on uneven sidewalks or terrain that could increase your risk of slipping or falling, so make sure you pick a path that you know is safe for you.

If temperature changes or weather affect your arthritis, consider walking indoors at a local mall or indoor track — and bring along a friend for company, suggests Louw.

How to Pick the Right Walking Gear

To prep for your walk, be sure to:

Choose the right shoes

Comfortable, supportive, and not too rigid — that’s ideal, says Louw. Look for proper arch support, a firm heel, and thick flexible soles to cushion your feet and absorb shock. The toe box should be roomy, and not too long. “Make sure you can engage your entire foot while you walk so to keep muscles and blood flow moving,” adds Louw. “Be careful not to restrict foot movement with inserts or tying your shoes too tight.” The more you engage your foot, the better you improve your balance. Read more here about picking the right shoes when you have arthritis.

Consider walking poles

Using a walking stick or pole may relieve pressure on the joints and assist with balance and stability. Ask your doctor if they are appropriate for you.

Pack a water bottle

To stay hydrated, drink a few cups of water 15 minutes before you start walking, and another few cups after you cool down. If you’re going for a longer walk, keep a water bottle handy and have a drink of water every 20 minutes or so while you exercise.

Tips Before You Start a Walking Program with Arthritis

If you’re new to exercise, it’s always smart to first talk to your doctor before you begin a walking program. Consider the current limits of your joints and work within those limits. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help create a personalized walking plan that gives you the most benefit without aggravating your joint pain. More tips to help protect your joints:

Start slowly

You might do five minutes a day the first week, and then increase your time or distance a few minutes the next week. Your doctor or physical therapist can help structure a program that’s right for you.

Build up to 150 minutes per week

That works out to 30 minutes a day, five days a week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, which means you can carry on a conversation while exercising, though your breathing rate will be increased. You can split that time into 10-minute blocks if fatigue is a problem.

Adjust your routine as needed

Listen to your body, advises Louw: “Joint pain can vary from day to day, so it’s important to modify your walking distance and time based on how you are feeling that day.” If you wake up with a lot of stiffness, gentle exercises may be helpful, but going for a longer walk may be more challenging.

Move gently

Move your joints gently at first to warm up. You might begin with range-of-motion exercises for five to 10 minutes before you move on to aerobic exercise. And when you do start walking, focus on landing softly with each stride.

Stop if anything hurts

Take a break if your joints start to ache — sit on a bench for a minute or two and engage in some easy breathing, then walk again, advises Louw. If the pain is sharp and stabbing, or you feel any new joint pain, it’s time to stop. Talk to your doctor about what pain is normal and when it’s a sign of something more serious.

Stretch every day

If you have a flare of RA or an increase in OA pain, you should still stay active. Some simple stretching may diminish some of the pain.

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