Exercise and Osteoarthritis – Load it!

Osteoarthritis is one of the most common chronic conditions of an entire joint resulting from a gradual loss of cartilage. Cartilage is the protective cushion between the bones and when this breaks down, bone overgrowth occurs and fluid filled pockets called subchondral cysts result in inflammation and stiffness within the entire joint.

The most common joints to be affected by osteoarthritis are our hips, knees and hands, with hips and knees causing the most pain due to their weight bearing load. Fundamentally osteoarthritis causes chronic pain, reduces physical function, causes muscle wastage and diminishes quality of life. Due to the pain associated with osteoarthritis, most people feel that exercise will make their pain worse and therefore opt to rest from exercise. It is important to understand why exercise helps osteoarthritis and what exercise you should do to improve your symptoms.

Research has found that land based exercise is the most dominant non-pharmacological interventions recommended for the treatment and management of osteoarthritis. Exercise is implemented to help improve joint range of motion, improve joint stability and muscle strength in the surrounding areas and help with weight loss. A structured progressive strength training program that targets muscle hypertrophy will help to improve function and decrease pain, particularly in load bearing joints such as the hips and knees.

Swimming is a great way to get started on an exercise program if pain levels are too high initially. Swimming can help to increase strength in a non-weight bearing environment before moving to a land based exercise program. Weight is the biggest modifiable factor to decrease pain associated with osteoarthritis. Being overweight impacts how much weight the joint has to sustain with each step taken; particularly with the hips and knees. Each additional kilogram of body mass increases the compressive load placed on the knee by roughly 4 kilograms.

Evidence based research suggests to decrease pain; the target weight loss percentage is 7.7% of total body weight. To decrease your pain related to osteoarthritis, do not stop exercise, seek a structured progressive land based training program from an Exercise Physiologist.