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Maximizing the Healing Effects of Exercise

Performing the proper exercises on a regular basis is a vital part of almost any arthritis treatment program. But to gain maximum benefits, you also need to be aware of proper exercise techniques, and always make sure that you're completely warmed up before exercising. A warm bath or shower can help, but you should also do some light cardio or strengthening exercises until you break a sweat. If you have painful, inflamed joints, you may find that icing them before your warm-up helps keep pain at a minimum.

As for exercising when you're in the midst of an arthritis flare, try a warm shower or bath, and then some gentle stretching to get a little circulation going. Take it easy, though. If stretching causes too much pain, stop. You can always try again later.

Exercising your options

Warming up your muscles through light exercise or a warm shower is just one idea for making the most of your exercise sessions. Take a look at these other helpful tips:

  • Start slowly with a program that you can do fairly easily.
  • Stop exercising if you feel dizzy, nauseous, or faint, or feel tightness in your chest. Call your doctor.
  • Pick a cardio-endurance activity that you can do continuously for 10 minutes, if possible. (If not, try 5 minutes or even 1 minute, and gradually increase your time.)
  • Make your cardiovascular-endurance exercises vigorous enough so that you sweat, your heart beats faster, and you breath comes more rapidly. Do your cardiovascular endurance exercises three days a week (every other day, with one day off per week) for at least 10 minutes, but not more than 30 minutes.
  • Exercise at a slower pace to cool down after doing cardio-endurance exercises. For example, you can walk slowly until your heart rate returns to normal.
  • Do your strength training exercises three days a week, on the days you don't do cardiovascular endurance exercises. Leave one day a week free for rest.
  • Do some flexibility exercises (stretching) before your strengthening routine, and then again afterwards. Stretching helps decrease the likelihood of injury to the muscles.
  • Ask your physical therapist to supervise your stretching sessions, at least in the beginning. Incorrect stretching can cause more harm than good. Stretching sessions should last from 10 to 20 minutes, with each stretch held at least 5 seconds. As you become more flexible, you can gradually increase the holding time to 10, 20, or even 30 seconds. Stretch every day, if possible.
  • Always stretch slowly and carefully — don't bounce. Move your body to its maximum position, hold it in place for at least 30 seconds, then ease into your stretch just a little more before releasing.
  • Don't hold your breath while stretching — breathe slowly and deeply and try to relax into the stretch.

One of the more important things you can do to help make exercise a permanent part of your life is to keep a positive attitude toward yourself, your body, and your program. Remember, the more you exercise, the easier it gets.

Although exercise may help ease your current joint pain and lessen tomorrow's pain, common sense suggests that you don't go for a jog when your arthritic knees act up or that you do push-ups when your wrist aches. If an exercise or activity hurts, or causes your joints to become inflamed, stop immediately. Pain is a message from your body telling you that tissue is being damaged. Respect the pain; try a different kind of exercise, or call it a day and try again tomorrow.

Working wisely with your workout program

Your doctor can advise you as to which kinds of exercise are helpful for your condition, how much is too much, and when to stop. A physical therapist also can be extremely helpful by suggesting appropriate exercises, teaching you correct techniques and positioning, and urging you on when it's time to increase the length and/or intensity of your workout. (An exercise physiologist can do much of what a physical therapist does, but make sure that he or she has experience working with arthritis.) And an occupational therapist can teach you how to use your joints in the least stressful ways.

Here's an easy way to find out if you're working hard enough (or too hard) while exercising: You should be breathing too heavily to be able to sing, but not so heavily that you can't talk. If you can sing while you're exercising, you might want to step up the intensity a bit. But if you find you can't catch your breath enough to talk during exercise, you're probably overdoing it.

Whenever you start a new exercise program, add a new activity, or increase the frequency or duration of your workout, the number one rule is this: Start slowly. Many would-be exercise enthusiasts are sidelined by doing too much too soon, winding up either injured or just plain burned out! Your exercise sessions should emphasize enjoyment. They should require some effort but should never be grueling. If you're more than just a little bit sore a day or two after the workout, you've done too much.

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Aiming for a Healthy Body: Incorporating Exercise into Your Life
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