Simple circulation exercises for Arthritis and how to include them in everyday life

April 2017

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Living with Arthritis can be a source of frustration as people adapt to living with more limited mobility. It also means adapting to various medical remedies as well as changing eating habits and as arthritis progresses, installing mobility aids such as stairlifts and walk in showers. It is a time when many people feel their body is beyond their control, especially as their diets and homes change beyond recognition, however there are home exercises you can do in order to improve your Arthritis. It is important to keep active despite Arthritis as a lack of motion can lead to worsening effects. Arthritis Action calls this the ‘deconditioning cycle’; “avoiding activity due to pain is not advised as this will lead to the joints getting a little stiffer and the muscles weakening.”

Arthritis affects joints and there are multiple causes for it. Inflammatory Arthritis is an autoimmune condition, where the immune system works against the body and this causes inflammation of the joints. A common example of this is Rheumatoid Arthritis. Degenerative or Mechanical Arthritis affects the cartilage which exists in joints to protect the bones from damaging each other with repetitive use. Over time the cartilage becomes thinner and rougher, which the body attempts to heal but this can result in overgrowing which alters the shape of the joint. This is known as osteoarthritis.

Arthritis is often found in joints that sustain high impact such as knees or hips, but also in those that are found to do repetitive motions, like fingers. The different sources for arthritis means there must be different types of exercise to combat the effects. These exercises are strengthening or stretching in order to increase the strength of the joints or improve the range of mobility. MOVE, an Australian company focussed on muscle, bone and joint health, cautions against over enthusiasm: “Although pain and inflammation can sometimes make it difficult to exercise, it is an effective treatment for muscle, bone and joint conditions. You should aim to do some form of physical activity every day. If you are just starting out, it’s important to start slowly and not push too hard from the outset. Build up your strength and stamina over a period of time.”

All of these exercises are low impact to reduce the stress caused on the joints in question but they are also easily incorporated into daily routines. Many people swear by Yoga, Pilates and Aqua-aerobics which are gentle way to improve core strength and the range of motion, however, as these need special facilities it is difficult to do these as often as required and fit them into a busy life. All the exercises below use only the weight of your body or household objects.

 

Hands

Hands need both strengthening and stretching exercises as we rely on them for the simplest of tasks. Being unable to do up buttons on a shirt or open doors due to a lack of mobility or strength is not only infuriating but reduces your independence. Many people find doing hand exercises under warm water is helpful. These exercises were advised by Health Communities who sought advice from Monique Turenne, OTR/L, a certified hand therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Making a fist

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Stiffness, lack of mobility and thumb pain are often issues found in arthritic hands, along with swollen joints. By making a gentle fist (not squeezing or stretching too hard) you use all of your fingers and if the thumb is tucked in, it ensures that it experiences its full range of motion. If you cannot make a tight fist, do not strain your hands just continue with this exercise 3-10 times a day.

Finger bends

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Isolating the fingers allows you to better understand where the problematic joints are and work on them individually. Many struggle to move the fourth finger separately from the third or littlest fingers, however as you concentrate on one finger at a time, you can ignore the movement of the other digits.

Finger lifts

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By holding each finger in a lifted position for several seconds, it strengthens the individual joints. If some fingers are weaker than others this exercise allows you to work on them by increasing the time you keep them lifted or the amount of repetitions of this exercise in a day. Make sure you do this exercise against a flat surface to fully measure the motion.

Wrist stretch

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Your wrists are often affected by arthritis and can be overlooked by many exercises. Strength is usually more of a problem than mobility due to the way we use our wrists and thus this is a strengthening exercise. Make sure not to push too hard as this can damage the joint. You can also push the heel forward to oppose the original stretch and follow the full range of movement.

Many everyday activities involve a repetition of hand movements but those that require both nimbleness and grasping to improve both strength and mobility. These can be knitting with light needles and crocheting, which involve dexterity of both fingers and wrists. For tips to get knitting again, check out Arthritis Foundation’s blog, which is full of helpful information.

See knitting video here

 

Knees

As key weight bearing joints, your knees are important to keep strong and mobile. If knees are affected by arthritis then your ability to move about, sit, stand and walk for any distance is seriously compromised. According to Healthline, “exercising an arthritic knee may seem counterintuitive, but regular exercise can actually lessen — and even relieve — arthritis pain and other symptoms, such as stiffness and swelling.” In order to retain movement, these exercises should be started as soon as you feel any stiffness and have seen a medical professional about it.

Squats

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Squats improve balance and core muscles as well as strengthening your knees. Though squats are for all levels of ability, there is no expectation to go any lower than you are comfortable. Instead lowering yourself into a chair while holding the correct position and then returning to standing will improve your knee strength alternatively if you are struggling to maintain the position Arthritis Health suggests “Position the body in a full squatting position with the back flat against the wall. Raise the body by straightening the legs and sliding the back up against the wall, and then lower the body using the same method”. This exercise should be repeated for a few minutes a day.

Step ups

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Though this is something most of us do every day, the motion is fantastic for gently increasing your heart rate, as well as improving your knees by controlling a motion you use regularly. This strengthens the muscles around the joint, as well as loosening any stiffness you may feel at the start of the day or with initial movements. Dr Axe is a certified fitness instructor, strength and conditioning specialist and Doctor of Chiropractic who recommends this exercise but mentions safety: “Find something that you can safely step up onto such as the first or second step of a flight of stairs or a fitness bench. Make sure that whatever you step on, it is sturdy.”

Straight leg raises

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This can be done sitting or standing. though if your balance is not the best, sitting may be better. Another strengthening exercise that you can do while watching TV or reading. It improves the mobility of the knee through the pendulum motion, but also creates movement in both the ankle and feet as you point your toe to raise your leg.

By walking upstairs or lowering yourself on to the sofa, you are working key muscles that keep your joints strong as well as adding extra movement, increasing the circulation (due to increased heart rate) in your body.

See sitting video here

 

Feet and ankles

Inflammation is a regular occurrence in this area due to much poorer circulation. Unfortunately this is another example of a deconditioning cycle where the inflammation causes pain, which people avoid by moving less, this causes poorer circulation and therefore more inflammation. These easy exertions will increase the blood flow as well as testing the range of movement you have available.

Plantar fascia stretch

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Despite the fancy name this involves no fancy equipment, just anything cylindrical that will roll like bean tins or bottles. This uses lots of different areas of your feet as well as your ankle and your knees to a certain extent. Roll in all directions for full range of motion. Arthritis Research UK suggests repeating this motion twice a day.

Heel taps

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By gently lifting and lowering your heels you improve your ankle motion but also tense your calves. Through strengthening this key stabilising muscle, you keep your knees and ankles aligned and balanced. This motion should be repeated up to twenty times a day, per foot.

Moving your feet is often an unconscious act unless it causes you pain. Making an effort to tap your feet in time to music or to idly do plantar fascia exercises while watching your favourite programs can greatly improve the well-being of your feet without enormous amounts of effort.

See toe tapping video here

 

Hips

The hips are another main weight bearing joint, however, due to being different type of joint - a saddle joint with 360° of motion - building mobility is as important as the strength. With recent years showing a rise in people having hip replacements, alternative exercises are being explored more thoroughly.

Hip extension

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This strengthening exercise also increases motion. By holding the pose for lengthening periods of time you increase the strength of the muscles and thus this is an exercise you can continue to build on. Keeping the knee straight focuses on the gluteus muscles which keep the hips aligned and stable as well as increasing circulation down the entirety of the leg.

Hip abduction

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A similar movement to the Hip Extension, however by lifting sideways you use a different collection of muscles and also increase the flexibility of the joint in an alternative direction. By pointing the toe you increase the circulation in the foot. If you feel unstable doing this standing and holding on to a chair, Arthritis Health suggests “Lying on the left side of the body, bend the left knee so that the left foot is behind the body”.

Quadriceps exercise

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Either lying or sitting with straight legs, pointing your toes towards you and pushing your knees firmly to the floor, you should feel a tightness in the front of your leg. By using your feet you improve the circulation while strengthening the Quadriceps which help alleviate the weight from your hips. Make sure you do this on a comfortable surface and repeat no more than 10 times a day.

Hip flexion

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Again, this exercise mirrors and exaggerates a motion we do every day. However, by strengthening the muscles we usually use, we loosen and strengthen the joints ready for our daily activities. This movement is likely to raise your heart rate a little and thus improve your circulation. Be aware that the knee should not be raised above a 90° angle. Dr Mercola from Peak Fitness proposes combining Hip Flexions with Hip Abductions: “Lying on your back, bring one knee up toward your chest Holding your knee with both hands, roll your knee from one side to the other for 20 seconds”.

Though some of the hip exercises must be done laying down, many merely require you to hold onto a surface. This makes them perfect for when you are cooking, either marching on the spot or lifting a leg waiting for something to boil or the toaster to pop.

See kitchen dancing video here.

Image Credit: Stevepb

 

Simple circulation exercises for Arthritis and how to include them in everyday life
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