Secrets to Success: 33 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Arthritis Action Plan

Advice for arthritis you can use… right now.

This collection of secrets and tips provides just what you’ll need to add safety, movement, and overall enhancement to your fitness and exercise routines:

1. Keep your eyes open. You may be tempted to close your eyes during exercise so you can concentrate on your muscles or breathing. Don’t. Balance relies on visual input to the brain; keep your eyes open to steady yourself.

2. Stand corrected. Many exercise guides tell you to start standing exercises with your feet shoulder-width apart. If you have arthritis, plant your feet hip-width apart. This narrower distance puts your knees, hips, and feet in alignment for good posture and improved biomechanics.

3. Keep support nearby. During standing exercises, use — or keep within easy grasp — a sturdy chair, countertop, or even wall, to maintain your balance and reduce the risk of injury.

4. Build abs with reps. Ready to enhance your abdominal workout? Once you’ve mastered the most difficult version of a given exercise, try adding a repetition at least every other time you do the exercise.

5. Know which side. If pain or decreased range of motion makes walking difficult, use a cane or rolling walker in the hand opposite the painful knee or hip.

6. Consider a splint. If overzealous exercising makes joint pain flare up, give the injured area a rest. A splint will temporarily stabilize the joint and keep you from hurting it further. You can buy splints over the counter at a drugstore or get them fitted by an occupational therapist. You can buy splints for fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles.

7. Know the limits. If you’ve had total hip or knee replacement, check with your doctor before doing any exercises. These procedures eliminate certain moves from your repertoire for at least two to six months after surgery. You should, for example, avoid exercises that involve high-impact stress on the lower extremities, leg adduction (moving legs inward against resistance), or flexing the new joint beyond 90 degrees.

8. Use good gear. Theoretically, anything heavy can be used for resistance exercises — milk jugs filled with sand or bags of rice. Such ad hoc gear may keep your equipment costs down, but most resistance exercises are more effective, more comfortable, and safer if you use equipment designed for fitness use.

9. Do it softly… and twice. If you find a particular stretch difficult, don’t push it. Instead, do the stretch as well as you can twice, resting in between. The repeated lengthening of your muscles will provide an extra degree of flexibility.

10. Add sets, not weights. A more intense exercise is usually taken to mean one involving heavier weights. But the issue is the overall volume of exercise, not just the weight of resistance. If you want to make an exercise more intense but find additional resistance to be uncomfortable, you can add sets or repetitions for an extra challenge.

11. Be consistent. Always start exercises on the same side of the body. Consistency makes keeping track of repetitions easier, especially when one repetition is completed only after both sides of the body have performed the movement.

12. Get a beat on pain. To make exercise more comfortable, try applying heat to painful joints or taking pain-relieving medications before you start. Be careful not to push yourself too hard during the workout. Analgesics can mask “good” pain that would otherwise tell you to hold back.

13. Try intervals: If walking seems too tame, but running is too hard on your joints, try a technique called interval training, in which you crank up the pace periodically — but only for short spurts. Example: Walk at your normal pace for 5 minutes, then walk much faster for 30 seconds — then slow back down to your usual stride for another 5 minutes and repeat. This sequence boosts intensity, but poses minimal risk of injury.

14. Grip the bike right. Grip the handlebars firmly enough to control the bike, but loosely enough to keep hand and arm muscles from being unnecessarily tense. Keep your elbows slightly bent.

15. Leave the pool well. Finish off your water workout by using a fitness trick to get out of the pool. Go to the shallow end and stand with your back against the side of the pool. Reach back to place your palms on the edge of the pool and jump up so that you sit on the edge. Assisted by the buoyancy of your body in the water, this movement works your arms, shoulders, chest, and back.

16. Play with balloons. Challenge your grandchildren to a balloon-batting contest. The team that keeps it off the ground longest gets the prize, but everybody is a winner because this is a terrific exercise for building strength and range of motion in all the muscles of the upper extremities from shoulders and arms to wrists and fingers.

17. Use the stairs. The familiar advice to take stairs instead of an elevator seems like a great way to build exercise into your day — if you don’t work on the 14th floor. But don’t think “all or nothing.” You can walk up to the second floor, catch the elevator there, and ride the rest of the way. As you get stronger, take more flights and ride less.

18. Try two for one. Taking stairs two at a time doubles the exercise — you get the benefits of stair-climbing plus lunging. (And you may even beat the elevator.)

19. Walk, don’t slouch. You can enhance the benefits of walking by practicing good posture as you stride. Hold your body so that shoulders and hips are aligned without arching your back. Keep your elbows close to your body. Let arms swing freely forward and back in a straight line.

20. Add music to your motion. Add a portable CD player to your fitness gear and use it on your walks. Music has been shown to have a measurable impact on performance. In one Ohio State University study, walking-program participants who listened to music on the road covered 21 percent more miles after eight weeks than walkers who didn’t tread to tunes.

21. Break it up. Sitting still — hunched over a desk or a computer station, for example — can cause tension and strain that makes muscles and joints more painful. To avoid this discomfort, take a short break at least every 10 minutes or so (set a timer if you’re really concentrating). Stand up and walk around for a minute; it relieves tension (especially in the back) and mildly exercises stiff muscles and joints.

22. Make breaks automatic. While working at your desk, stash items that you use occasionally (but not constantly) beyond your reach. That way, you’ll be forced to get up every now and then — in effect, taking a break and mildly exercising without feeling like you’ve stopped working.

23. Play ball. Just because it’s fitness equipment doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with an exercise ball. Example: Making a lunge to bounce a ball against a wall with your hands provides a workout for wrist, hands, shoulders, chest, back, hips, and knees.

24. Use good phone technique. One of the most common causes of tension in the cervical spine is sloppy use of the telephone. It’s not enough to stop cradling the handset between your ear and shoulder. You should also avoid holding it on just one side of your head — switch hands (and ears) regularly during a conversation. If you have a cell phone, use the hands-free earpiece/microphone that’s included with it. Otherwise, pick up one at an electronics store.

25. Create a pain-free desk. Rearrange your desk to eliminate sources of strain on muscles and joints. Keep the objects you use often in a semicircle within arm’s reach. When you grab something, bring it close to your body to use. Heavy objects such as reference books should be on your desk or a middle shelf nearby. Avoid reaching for objects over your head or behind you, especially if they’re heavy. Stand up to get them.

26. Get the right angle. Tilting your head back to view a computer screen is a common source of neck tension, especially for people with bifocals. Instead, adjust the screen to eye level or slightly below eye level. If you can’t make the screen lower, raise the height of your chair.

27. Keep wrists straight. To keep keyboard typing from aggravating wrist pain, don’t let your wrists tilt upward to reach the keys. Keep hands and forearms in a straight line.

28. Choose a chair with arms. Using an armchair when you work at a desk takes the weight of your arms off your shoulders, neck, and back. The best armrest position is close to your body at a height that lets elbows barely touch the armrest as you type at a keyboard, while allowing you to keep your wrist straight and your neck and shoulders relaxed.

29. Park with employees. When shopping at the mall, park where workers are told to put their cars — away from entrances. Better yet, park at the end of the mall farthest from the store to which you’re heading and walk to your destination. (Bonus: You’ll have no trouble finding a spot.)

30. Take the long way. Most people try to find the shortest route to where they’re going. But if you’re hoofing it, short is good but long is better. Think of other ways to decide which way to go. Examples: Which way has more beautiful scenery, less traffic, a coffee shop, attractive stores, or friendly people you might speak with?

31. Walk on a beach. Walking on a soft sandy beach not only calms your mind, it provides a gentle workout that’s easy on knees while calling on muscles in the hips and lower back for balance on the uneven surface. For a bigger challenge, wade in ankle-deep surf, lifting your feet out of the water as you walk. This provides a good workout for the entire lower body, including hips, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, and feet — right down to your toes as they curl into the sand. Walk through calf-deep water to exercise the quadriceps muscles of the thigh.

32. Stay off the sidewalk. When strolling, get off the paved path and walk along the grass or dirt fitness trail: The softer surface is easier on joints and also provides a better workout for muscles because the uneven surface makes your lower body work slightly harder.

33. Avoid efficiency. That’s right — get out of the multitasking mindset. Instead of combining chores so you only go up and down stairs once, break them up. If you normally fold all the laundry, fold just the towels, take them up, then go back down to the laundry room for another batch.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest