Active lifestyle is the best defense against arthritis
By Ivan Garcia
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Arthritis is so common, it almost escapes notice in the public imagination.
According to the Arthritis Society, about six million Canadians (one in five adults) have arthritis, a number that is expected to grow to a whopping nine million Canadians (one if four adults) by 2040, driven in part by our aging population.
With October 12 being World Arthritis Day, it's a good time for all of us to give this topic some extra consideration, especially in terms of what we can do to reduce our risk.
First, you should know that arthritis is not one disease, but many. It is a term used to describe a group of over 100 diseases characterized by inflammation in the joints – most often affecting weight-bearing joints such as the hips, knees, and spine, though it also commonly affects the joints in the hand. Over time and without treatment, this inflammation can lead to significant and irreparable damage, a loss of function and disability. The result is sustained joint pain, restricted mobility and a diminished quality of life. There is currently no cure.
In addition to its physical effects, it also impacts mental health: People with arthritis are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression than people without arthritis.
In Canada, arthritis is more common in women than men (1 in 4 women, compared to 1 in 6 men). It's more common in older people but can strike people of any age. In fact, more than half of Canadians with arthritis are younger than 65.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more Canadians than all other forms of arthritis combined. It occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down over time. It is a chronic condition that affects people on an ongoing, constant or recurring basis over months, years, or a lifetime.
Due to the nature of some of its risk factors, including increasing age, family history and injury, we can't always prevent arthritis. Thankfully, however, there are some things we can do to improve our odds – actions that not only help guard against or slow the progression of arthritis, but which can have a powerful impact on other diseases as well. These include exercise, weight control, and eating a healthy diet.
Regular exercise is a particularly important factor and helps strengthen your cartilage, ligaments, muscles and bones. This stabilizes them and can protect them from added wear and tear.
Even after the onset of arthritis, maintaining an active lifestyle is a key to slowing its progression – a fact that often seems counterintuitive to patients whose natural response to joint pain is a desire to limit their mobility.
We often recommend low-impact exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling and cross-country skiing. Exercise equipment such stair climbers and elliptical machines are another option that can keep you moving while helping protect your joints from jarring impacts. In addition, stretching and strengthening exercise programs can help improve the stability and alignment of your joints to help protect them. Exercise professionals are a valuable resource to help identify which types of exercises can provide you with most benefit.
For those who find exercise difficult or intimidating, the Arthritis Society recommends these simple tips of increasing the amount of movement in your day:
- Parking further away from your destination so you walk a little further
- Taking frequent "stretch" breaks at work to walk
- Setting reminders throughout the day to correct your posture
- Walking to the convenience store instead of driving
- Choosing stairs instead of the elevator (if your knees aren't bothering you)
- Getting off one stop early if you take public transit
An added benefit to regular exercise is that it can help reduce the amount of medication you might need to help control arthritis pain and inflammation. This in turn has the potential to reduce your chances of acquiring other health issues which can be caused by the side effects of these medications
Educating yourself is another great idea, and there's a wealth of information online to help you learn more about arthritis. The Arthritis Society (arthritis.ca) is a great place to start and includes a handy Symptom Checker. Most importantly, if you have had persistent joint pain for six weeks or more, see your doctor. In terms of treatment options and outcomes, the sooner you are diagnosed, the better.
With arthritis on the rise, it's time to raise your awareness and take action to reduce the impact that it could have on you. Remember, an increase in physical activity now can pay big dividends down the road.
Ivan Garcia is a physiotherapist at Deer Lodge Centre and the WRHA's PRIME program for the elderly.