Fight Arthritis...With Exercise
Writing a column on arthritis requires interviewing arthritis sufferers. This shouldn’t be a difficult task. Popular theory says that the joint pain associated with the disease makes those afflicted with it lethargic, bedridden and, most likely, within constant earshot of a ringing telephone.
The good news for arthritis patients—and bad news for me—is that due to new local exercise programs, the agonizing aches and pains associated with the illness are no longer keeping them near the phone.
Lee Memorial Health System (LMHS) has recently begun hosting an offshoot of the Arthritis Foundation Self-Help Program, a class intent on helping patients cope with pain of arthritis through proper exercise for their specific joint ailments. Its theories are not new or revolutionary, having been created in 1979 by smart people at Stanford University, but it’s having a revolutionary effect on Southwest Florida arthritis patients.
For years, people with arthritis believed that exercise of any sort would only worsen their condition. After all, arthritis is the result of damage to the cartilage in joints; movement leaves bone banging against bone without a cushion, and it doesn’t have a cure.
Consequently, arthritis was treated with, at best, a heavy
dose of pain medication and, at worst, surgery.
But studies have shown that regular exercise actually alleviates arthritis pain by reducing stiffness and joint fatigue. The problem remains, as a report published in Arthritis Care and Research maintains, that people with the disease are most in need of its benefits but less likely to exercise.
That same study, made public
in 2005, put the blame at the feet of healthcare providers, who failed to tout exercise’s benefits and lacked a selection of arthritic-specific programs.
Kurt Gray, a physical therapist and the director of the LMHS program, hopes his class changes that. Although it would seem logical for Gray to describe the program’s exercises and activities (and much easier on this reporter), he says the class is not organized that way. Instead, class participants are asked to create their own exercises and strategies for living with arthritis by intersecting science with
“It’s an approach that isn’t commonly done with healthcare,” Gray says. “With healthcare, we ordinarily go to our doctor and say, ‘Fix me.’ And in this case, healthcare does a good job of those things, but they can’t do a complete job.”
Over the class’ six weeks, the participants select goals they want to accomplish. For instance, at the beginning of one program a woman had trouble walking from her car to the class room. The pain was too great to trek any further.
In consultation with Gray and the other class members, she began walking that distance three times a day. At the end of one week she extended her workout to five times a day, and so on. She’s now walking 100 yards twice a day; a small jog for most people but what must feel like a marathon for her.
“It is very functional; it’s not terribly scientific,” Gray says. “But in a business setting, you have to deal with new problems virtually every day, and you have to develop step-by-step methods to resolve them.”
Gray says that because of the class’ Socratic nature, participants have more fun and are less likely to drop out, noting a washout rate of less than 5 percent.
But the class’ returning-of-voicemails rate was much lower, and my deadline was creeping much closer. Finally, Carole Wyatt, 67, who just happened to be laid up after knee replacement surgery, picked up the receiver.
Wyatt, of Cape Coral, was a student in the class earlier this year. She suffers from arthritis in her hands, feet and shoulder, but the arthritis in her knees is so bad that she can’t navigate a flight of stairs. That was her goal for the class: Make it up and down stairs.
Gray showed her that her posture, while good, was suffering from her knock-knees, which were then inflaming her arthritis. “The head bone really is connected to the neck bone and the hip bone,” Wyatt says.
She also learned that simple stretches—like bending her fingers backwards—can keep joints stronger and more supple. “[The class] was especially helpful in counteracting arthritis,” she says. “You can’t keep from getting it, but you can get your body to ignore it.”
But arthritis-beneficial exercises are not exclusive to arthritis-specific classes. At NCH’s Whitaker Wellness Center in Naples, Bobbie Lee Gruninger, the group fitness coordinator, developed a class that melds yoga, tai chi, meditation, qigong and Pilates.
She wanted to create a smooth workout for her elder clientele, something that would be easy on their bodies while strengthening their muscles. Because it’s a melting pot of exercise methods, she named it “Infused.” It just happened, by coincidence, to have the favorable byproduct of quenching arthritis pain.
The class consists of light lunges into each leg, the smooth twisting of the wrists and ankles, long bends at the waist and countless other fluid motions. Its major influence is tai chi, which Gruninger specializes in, and has become a favorite and sanctioned exercise mode by the Arthritis Foundation.
The Arthritis Foundation has even added tai chi to the Self-Help Program, and LMHS plans to absorb it and swim fitness (smooth movements, low-impact) into its curriculum very soon.
It should be noted that most of the arthritis patients who attend the Infused class suffer from osteoarthritis, or “wear-and-tear” arthritis, and are often in the early stages of it. For more severe types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, a specialized program, like one created through the LMHS program or with a physical therapist, may be necessary.
But it’s still effective at battling the onset of arthritis, or preventing it altogether. “It’s very good for getting all of those synovial fluids in the joints going,” Gruninger says. “Because what happens if you don’t do that is you become very stiff and sore, and the muscles and the joints, like anything else—use it or lose it.”
That’s what arthritis exercises are trying to prevent: losing it. Because, as with any chronic disease, those afflicted with arthritis will lose an important aspect of their lifestyle. It may be the ability to run every morning, play golf or, in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, just get out of bed. The end result is often depression, obesity and cardiovascular dysfunction.
So while pharmaceuticals, both pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs, will probably remain necessary in the battle against arthritis, if the infirm want to return to the tennis court, the golf course or whatever, they have to get off the La-Z-Boy—away from the voice messages of desperately annoying reporters.
“They are all out and about,” Gray wrote in an e-mail. “Who knows, I may have helped with that problem.”
He didn’t have to rub it in.
protective skill to head-off any
adulterous feelings or actions.
of brain cancer.
members both young and old can improve their health.”