Back pain pushed Denise Clements toward yoga more than a decade ago.
Then pain in her knees and hips curtailed Clements' regular yoga practice and almost any other exercise.
“Unfortunately, I didn't go talk to anybody about it,” says the Medford resident. “I just stopped.”
Arthritis spelled the same consequence for Clements at age 73 that it does for millions of Americans of all ages. Facing a diagnosis of arthritis, they cease exercising and minimize movement to safeguard their joints.
“They're very fearful of it,” says physical therapist Amanda Olson.
In reality, sedentary adults with diagnoses of arthritis sacrifice other aspects of health, feel just as much pain and ultimately jeopardize an independent lifestyle if they're unable to perform everyday tasks.
“It becomes almost a Catch-22,” says Olson. “The muscles become weak ... the joint itself can just become tighter.”
Clements recognized the effects of her inactivity since starting physical therapy with Olson at Jackson County Physical Therapy's Phoenix office.
“Just two years of not doing yoga, my muscles were so stiff,” says Clements. “They're not lubricated like they were,” she says of her joints.
Therapy combines hands-on manipulations to help the joints glide better with gentle exercises, such as stationary cycling and stretching to promote range of motion. After about a month of therapy, Clements says her goal is rejoin Baxter Fitness Solutions, a gym for adults 50 and older, and start exercising again.
“We're going to try to train them in a really safe environment to try to stabilize that joint,” says Andy Baxter, owner of Baxter gyms in Ashland and Medford. A “huge part of his clientele” has arthritis, he adds.
Fitness professionals aren't the only ones urging arthritis sufferers to exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed an educational campaign available to state health departments and community organizations called “Physical Activity. The Arthritis Pain Reliever.”
The Arthritis Foundation uses the slogan “Moving is the best medicine” on the website www.fightarthritispain.org.
These initiatives correspond with the principles of Exercise is Medicine, a trademarked partnership between the American College of Sports Medicine and American Medical Association, says Bill Macy, director of Avamere Health & Fitness Club in Medford.
“Exercise is really the arthritis pain-reliever,” says Macy. “That becomes the No. 1 recommendation.”
Avamere creates a program, often with a physician's referral, that takes a patient's pain level and physical abilities into account, says Macy. About 80 percent of Avamere's approximately 500 members, all 40 and older, likely experience some degree of arthritis, he adds.
“It's a really natural part of aging, honestly,” says Olson.
The term arthritis actually describes more than 100 rheumatic diseases and conditions that affect the body's joints and surrounding tissues, according to the CDC. The type of arthritis most commonly associated with aging is osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, which often strikes younger adults, is thought to be an autoimmune response that leads to systemic inflammation.
Regardless of disease specifics, the main symptom is pain. But pain — contrary to long-held medical opinion — is no longer a reason not to exercise, say experts.
“Try to work through the normal, acceptable levels of pain,” says Baxter, explaining that most physical activities will entail some minor pain for arthritis sufferers.
Certain aches, however, likely come from muscle soreness typically associated with working out, says Macy, adding that his staff tries to educate arthritis sufferers about the difference. The benefit for tolerating the discomfort of exercise is an overall reduction in joint pain while at rest or performing everyday activities. The ability to perform those activities is known as “functional strength.”
“Without it, you lose your independence,” says Baxter.
Functional strength is maintained or regained only through strength training as the aging body loses muscle mass, he says. Baxter Fitness uses air-resistance machines, rather than stacked weights, for this kind of training. The machines are suited to older people with diminishing neuromuscular control who also may lack the strength to resist gravity's pull on traditional weights, he explains. Baxter trainers also avoid “rotary movements” that put the burden on a single joint and instead design exercises that distribute the strain.
The important point to remember, say experts, is that muscles support joints, effectively lightening their load. While a lot of aging adults don't like to hear that walking and swimming aren't the best exercises for preventing or managing arthritis, it's the simple truth, says Baxter.
“These are great activities for many other reasons.”
Recumbent cycling often is preferred, along with other elliptical movements for cardiovascular fitness in arthritis sufferers, says Baxter. A complete exercise program incorporates endurance and strength training with increasing range of motion.
Walking, however, is the Arthritis Foundation's way to highlight how movement can prevent or treat arthritis. The Southern Oregon Arthritis Walk is planned for Oct. 6 in Bear Creek Park and is open to the public.