Grocery shopping is one of those everyday tasks essential to independent living, but it is easy to forget how complex an activity it is. Lifting, pushing, carrying, walking, math, memory — the physical and mental effort required to grocery shop can be immense. Add in pain or disability from arthritis and picking up the weekly groceries can feel like running a marathon, to the point where you may feel like you’ll never eat anything again that can’t be delivered.
Then there’s the emotional aspect.
“Not being able to do the basic things to take care of my family, like shopping and cooking, feels like I’m a failure. I know logically that’s not true but that’s what it feels like sometimes,” says Rachel F., 34, a mom of three in Denver, Colorado, who recently had a double hip replacement due to rheumatoid arthritis. She points out that even little things, like lifting her toddler into the grocery cart seat or walking back through the store for a forgotten item, can feel impossible. “And it’s not just that I can’t do them but that when I try it takes so much out of me. An hour in the grocery store means spending the rest of the day in bed, often in a lot of pain,” she says.
However, Rachel is determined that this won’t be the rest of her life. Her surgery was several months ago and as she recovers, she feels ready to start taking back some of those tasks, like grocery shopping. To help her — and anyone else with arthritis who dreads the grocery store — we asked experts to share their tips for getting your shopping done in the most pain-free and efficient way possible.
Always use a shopping cart
When it comes to making it through the grocery store, the shopping cart is your best friend, even if you’re only grabbing a few things, says physical therapist Alan Snyder, PT, DPT, at Breakaway Physical Therapy in New York City. “Do not use a hand basket,” he says. “Carrying around an extra 10 to 15 pounds can put a lot of stress on the joints.” Using the shopping cart to lean on and rest can provide some relief from pain and fatigue, he adds.
Learn proper lifting form
Properly lifting heavy objects is important for everyone, but it’s crucial for people with arthritis as any additional stress on weakened joints can lead to an injury, Snyder says. You don’t have to be lifting a 40-pound bag of cat litter to hurt yourself — even lifting a five-pound bag of sugar can injure a joint. “Always use both hands when taking things off the shelf,” he says. “Ask your physical therapist or occupational therapist to show you the proper way to lift items that are heavy and practice those movements so they become natural.”
Mind your reach
Reaching for items on store shelves is a common repetitive motion you do when grocery shopping, but don’t let yourself get casual about it, Snyder says. Try not to reach over other things — people, display cases, grocery carts, the conveyor belt — and stand as close as you can to the item before picking it up, he advises. “Grabbing items away from the body increases pressure in the lower back and can put you off balance,” he explains.
Stop hinging and start squatting
One of the most common mistakes Snyder sees clients with arthritis make at the grocery store is hinging at the hips to bend over to pick up items off the floor or lower shelves — a surefire way to exacerbate back pain if you have it and contribute to back problems if you don’t yet. “Make sure you bend your knees and squat down. Don’t lean forward from the lumbar [lower] spine,” he says. Do this even if you need to pick up lighter items.
Wear compression gloves
Compression gloves serve two purposes in the grocery store: First, the compression can help with joint pain in hands and fingers. Second, they can help you grip slippery items more firmly, Snyder says. You can even get heated compression gloves if the cold air from the refrigerator or freezer cases is painful. This may be especially helpful if you have Raynaud’s disease, which is common in some forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Plan your route in advance
An arthritis flare is no time to wander up and down every aisle in your grocery store so it’s important to have a plan of attack before you even get there, says Nina Geromel, PT, DPT, ATC, a physical therapist and founder of Geromove Physical Therapy. Planning out your route will allow you to avoid extra walking and help combat the forgetfulness that comes with arthritis brain fog, she says.
Make a shopping list
Shopping lists are a great way to save time and money in the store (no more impulse buys!) but for people with arthritis they’re also a way to make your grocery trip as efficient as possible, allowing you to get what you need before you hit your limits, mentally or physically, Geromel says. Organizing your list by store section will help you plan your route better and making a grocery list based off your weekly menu will save you time and frustration in the kitchen later.
Walk every day
Getting daily exercise, especially walking, will help accustom your body to the amount of walking you need to do in a grocery store, Geromel says. Keeping up your fitness level is one of the simplest and best ways to make your shopping a more pleasant experience, she says.
Know your limits
Many people with arthritis fall into the trap of trying to do too much on their good days, cramming in their entire To-Do list into one trip, which can lead to worse flare-ups, pain, and exhaustion, Geromel says. “Pace yourself in the store, take your time, and know your limits,” she says. “Even if it means leaving before getting everything on your list, it’s important to respect your body and what it’s telling you.”
Avoid carrying things on your hip
Balancing a baby on your hip, holding a bag of flour in your left arm, or toting a bag on your elbow are all normal movements in a grocery store but even these small things have the potential to cause a lot of joint pain, Geromel says. “Carrying anything on only one side of the body can lead to uneven weight distribution through the joints, especially the low back, hips, and knees, which can lead to more pain,” she says. “It’s always better to just use a cart even if you’re not carrying it very far.”
Bring your own bags
The plastic and paper shopping bags provided by stores are very hard for people with arthritis to grip and hold on to. Bringing your own canvas or other comfortable bag can really help with transporting your groceries, says physical therapist Joe Tatta, PT, DPT, founder of the Integrative Pain Science Institute. And who cares if they’re not actually “grocery bags” — a backpack with padded straps or a duffle bag with a thick handle are easier to lift and carry, he says.
Consider buying your own cart
You can only take a grocery cart so far — specifically the edge of the parking lot — but then you’re left high and dry when it comes to transporting your groceries from your car to your home. Carrying multiple bags can quickly strain inflamed joints. One simple solution is to bring your own rolling cart and load your groceries directly into that, Tatta says. You can even buy bag attachments for walkers so you can use one product for both purposes.
Reserve a motorized shopping cart
For some people even a small amount of walking is too painful, which is why many grocery stores now have motorized shopping carts that allow you to sit and drive them around the store. The problem is that they are often taken or broken. Instead of risking a painful or pointless trip, simply call ahead and tell the manager what time you’ll be coming in and ask them to reserve a motorized cart for you, Tatta suggests.
Take advantage of curbside pickup
Getting your groceries delivered directly to your home is one option but if you prefer to have a bit more control over what you get and when, curbside pickup services are a great option. You order online, drive to the store and park in a specified area, and then a worker will bring your groceries out and load them in your car for you, saving you time and pain. You can even check them before you leave to make sure everything is to your satisfaction. If it isn’t, the worker can run back in the store and exchange the item.
Split up heavy items
If you can’t lift something without pain at the store then you certainly won’t be able to do it alone at home when you need to use it. A practical solution that will help you in the grocery store and at home is to split up heavy items into smaller packages, says occupational therapist Brittany Ferri, OTR/L. “You need to be creative and think outside the box, literally,” she says. For instance, instead of getting a gallon of milk get two pints or instead of buying the bulk bag of dog food buy three smaller five-pound bags. Ask stores to repackage certain large items, like value packs of meat, into smaller, more manageable packages for you.
Bring an energizing snack
Grocery shopping can be exhausting. One way to keep your energy levels up is to bring a healthy snack, like a shake made from yogurt, kale, and fruit, with you, Ferri says. “Pick foods with anti-inflammatory properties, like berries,” she says. “Avoid ones that will only make you more tired later, like caffeine or sugary snacks.”
Skip the self-checkout
The self-checkout kiosks are tempting, especially if you only have a few items and are crunched for time, but when it comes to protecting your joints it’s worth it to go through a regular checkout line, Ferri says. You can ask the bagger to load your things onto the conveyor belt for you and then put the bags into your cart and walk it out to your car afterward. Most stores offer all these services for free and are happy to help if you just ask, she says.
Wear supportive shoes
Grocery shopping is not the time to wear your cute ballet flats, dress oxfords, or heels — instead make sure you’re wearing comfortable, supportive shoes with non-slip soles, like athletic shoes or hiking boots, Ferri says.
Time your trip right
A Saturday morning at the local grocery store is a recipe for pain, thanks to crowds, crying children, and long lines. Be kind to yourself and schedule your shopping trip for when the grocery store will be more calm and less crowded, allowing you to shop at your leisure, says Kulraj Singh, a physiotherapist and occupational therapist at the Tavistock Clinic in England. “Stress can contribute to inflammation and aggravate symptoms of arthritis,” he explains.
Go with a friend
Having a support person there can make all the difference in having a successful shopping trip, Singh says. Not only can they help you lift things or push the cart but doing it with a friend will make it more fun and less stressful, allowing you to get social time as well as completing an errand.
Interview with Alan Snyder, PT, DPT, at Breakaway Physical Therapy
Interview with Brittany Ferri, OTR/L
Interview with Joe Tatta, PT, DPT, founder of the Integrative Pain Science Institute
Interview with Nina Geromel, PT, DPT, ATC, founder of Geromove Physical Therapy