In this second of two articles on living with osteoarthritis, we’ll look at the benefits of water-based exercise.
Because osteoarthritis is a wear and tear form of arthritis and usually results from increased compression or strain in the joints, water provides the perfect place to exercise while reducing the strain. In the water, the body is buoyant, so body weight is significantly reduced, which lessens compression. Joints can perform their functional movement and bear less weight. Movement can be done and stress can be eased without causing more strain. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Consider several factors when you choose a pool for exercise. First, make sure the pool’s schedule includes open times allowing you to walk and exercise. Depending when the pool is used for team sports or lap swimming, exercise times may be limited. Next, consider the pool’s temperature. Most high school pools are kept at a temperature between 76-78 degrees F. Health clubs and community centers typically keep their pools between 82-84 degrees F.
Communities with therapeutic pools and some hotels and resorts tend to keep their pools a little warmer than 84 degrees F. The water temperature can be important. If your muscles tend to cramp in cooler water and your joints are fairly involved with arthritis, a warmer environment would suit you better. But if you plan to do a fairly vigorous workout, you may become overheated in a warmer pool. If you have difficulty getting up and down stairs, make sure the pool has manageable steps with a handrail. Check whether you can wear non-skid water shoes, which can help you walk more surely in the water.
The water-based program should include functional activities like walking and gentle supported half squats (to mimic getting up from a chair or couch), balance and agility exercises that help prevent falls, and active range of motion and strengthening exercises that keep the joints of the arms, legs, and spine limber and strong. By including these components in your workout, you are getting the most for your time.
Here is a sample program:
First, start by walking in the shallow end of the pool, forward, backward, and leading with left and right side alternately. The water’s resistance helps strengthen the leg and stabilizing muscles of your back and challenges your agility and balance.
Next, in the shallows, work on your leg muscles by alternately standing, then bending your knees while keeping your feet flat on the pool floor (leg squat exercises). Now stand and balance just on one foot, then the other. The more shallow the water the more challenging the exercise. Now try calf raises by coming up on your toes while you stand on one foot. This both strengthens your calves and challenges your balance. Active range of motion exercises such as lifting your legs forward, backward, and out to the side as far as possible stretch muscles and joints in a pain free and supported setting. Using a kick board under your chest and arms and kicking with your feet strengthens and increases endurance in your legs. But if this position causes low back pain, stop this one.
For the upper body, swim using several different strokes; the back stroke, side stroke (do each side), free style and breast stroke offer good stretching of the upper body and arms. If you are unable to do this, it’s also effective to do the motions of these different strokes while you stand in the shallow end.
For an arthritis program tailored to your individual needs it is always beneficial to see a physical therapist. Remember that a pool is a great place to regain your freedom of motion and strength.