Aging and Caring: Senior Disability Issues

Q: I know I should be exercising regularly. The problem is that my arthritis pain keeps me from being consistent with any program I start. Is there an exercise program you recommend?

A: I know what you mean.
It’s hard enough to be consistent with an exercise program when you’re feeling good, but when you add a dose of painful arthritis quitting sounds like a justifiable alternative, right?


This may be surprising, and may even sound a little counterintuitive, but when you’re suffering joint pain, physical activity is a natural pain reliever. By exercising you will experience the benefits of reducing joint stiffness and pain, strengthening muscles around the joints, and improving flexibility. That said, starting with the right kind of exercise program is very important.

I recommend that you begin by working with your doctor to deal with the pain, and discuss exercise options that are right for you. Interestingly, studies have shown that exercise can decrease the desire for pain relievers as well as improve your mood – all this while reducing the waistline.

There are three components to consider when planning an exercise program: fitness for endurance, muscle strengthening, and range of motion for flexibility.

I will address suggestions for all three.

Do the words “soothing, warm and buoyant” sound appealing? That’s what aquatic exercise is all about, and it’s ideally suited for arthritics to tackle all three exercise components at once. My mother attends the aquatic therapy classes at the YMCA, in their bathtub-temperature, indoor pool. It’s very user-friendly. You don’t have to be a member to take advantage of these classes and anyone can enroll. Many facilities offer aquatic therapy and arthritic exercise programs in our area.

Typically an aquatic therapy class is made up of all ages, shapes and sizes, and no one needs to feel self conscious. You don’t even have to wear a swim suit! If shorts and a T-shirt are more comfortable, just wear those in the pool. The one common trait is that everyone is supportive of one another, and after you’ve attended a few sessions, everyone knows your name.

Endurance exercises, such as walking or bicycling, are a good way to improve fitness without putting too much stress on your joints. The goal is to pace yourself and keep resistance to a minimum. But – before you tackle the journey, remember to do a few preliminary steps to get your painful joints ready. Massage the sore areas and apply mild heat and/or cold treatments to the joints. Heat relaxes and helps relieve pain, cold also reduces pain in some instances (for this you can wrap a bag of frozen veggies in a towel). A warm up of gentle stretching will also work wonders to get you started correctly.

Strengthening exercises come in two common categories: isometrics and isotonics. OK, so forget the techno-speak; just remember that you can exercise by tightening muscles with or without moving your joints. If the joint is painful, you will want to move it very little and very gently. Make sure to exercise at a comfortable level, and don’t hurry. Give your muscles time to relax between repetitions.

For flexibility I recommend a beginner yoga class. The important thing is to explain your condition to the instructor prior to beginning the class. If there are any restrictions or limitations that your physician wants you to observe, these should be communicated right away. Don’t try to keep up with the class if you don’t feel like it, you know how to use your joints wisely, stretches can be modified or skipped if they cause discomfort. Yoga classes are widely available in our community, including the YMCA, health clubs, and senior centers.

I have found the internet to be a gold mine of information, especially the “Arthritis Foundation” and its many publications. Its web site is http://www.arthritis.org.

You can find the closest chapter and get information about local fitness opportunities. Good luck getting started.

Victoria Bernet is a licensed occupational therapist with an advanced certification in physical agent modalities. She’s worked as an OTR in Redding for more than 20 years, and specializes in adult rehabilitation. She works for North State Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation and serves on the utilization review committee for Golden Umbrella’s adult daycare. She is married and has three children.

Victoria Bernet

is a licensed occupational therapist with advanced certification in physical agent modalities. She has worked in Redding for more than 20 years, specializing in adult rehabilitation. She serves on the utilization review committee for Golden Umbrella’s adult day care. She is married and has three children.

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