Keran Smith is one of the estimated 27 million people living with arthritis. Her world completely changed when doctors diagnosed her with the painful condition 12 years ago. But she won't let the disease rob her of her golden years.
Smith, now 72, retraces her disease to a severe fall, which resulted in surgeries on her knee and shoulder. "After I had all those surgeries, I had so much pain," Smith recounts. Since she didn't tolerate medicine well, Smith chose not to take prescription-strength pain medication. For nine years, Smith suffered through the pain, which severely curtailed her daily activities. Her knees, hips, feet and back were riddled with the disease, and eventually Smith could barely walk down a set of stairs. "On a scale of one to 10, my pain was about a 9." For the once-active woman, who swam a mile a day before her diagnosis, exercising was the furthest thing from her mind. She believe she could no longer exercise due to arthritis pain.
That's one of the fallacies of osteoarthritis (OA), the form Smith lives with. Patience White, MD, MA, vice president for public health for the National Arthritis Foundation and a professor at Georgia Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science, knows exercise is actually a key component in a successful OA treatment plan. That's because behavioral conditions are at the core of OA. In OA, the cartilage which cushions the ends of joints and other bones breaks down, causing bones to rub against each other, resulting in stiffness and pain. Over time, OA may create the need for joint replacements, especially the knee and hips.
One major cause of OA is being overweight or obese. Consider this: for every extra pound you gain, four more pounds of pressure is put on your knees, and six times the pressure is added on your hips. While it's not uncommon for many of us to gain weight as we age, most of us also decrease the physical activity we had in our teens and 20s. The combination of weight gain and lack of exercise increases our risk of OA with every extra pound. In fact, if you're overweight, your risk of getting OA is 50%. If you're obese, that number jumps to 66%.
"Osteoarthritis isn't inevitable," Dr. White explains. "A little reduction of weight, even 10 pounds is beneficial."
Dr. White encourages people with OA to eat a healthy diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains to shed their extra pounds. Then she works to get them some pain relief so they can get moving and work on incorporating a daily exercise program into their life. The goals are to strengthen and stretch. Swimming is a gentle exercise that can help achieve this. "It's really a great exercise, but so is walking," says Dr. White. "Bottom line is people need to reduce calorie intake and exercise more."
Smith, who was tired of being in pain, and now diagnosed with osteoporosis and fibromyalgia, an arthritis-related ailment that causes wide-spread body pain and makes the body sensitive to the touch, discovered an arthritis aquatics program at her local YMCA. The improvement in her condition, she says, has been miraculous. "You can't imagine how much it has helped me. It's the best thing I've ever done for my life."
During the class, participants do basic movements in a warm-water pool, usually heated to between 83 and 90-degrees. The hour-long exercise program in waist-high water includes walking and marching in place, gentle stretching and squats. Water noodles are also used so exercisers can stay afloat for crunches.
Smith has made her water-exercise regime a part of her life and is living proof that movement can curb the pain of OA. She's found the cumulative effect of exercise to be most beneficial. In fact, Smith boasts that she can walk unassisted, even down stairs, and no longer needs any medication – neither prescription or over-the-counter. "The water in the pool is my medicine," she says. "It's been my godsend."
Smith was so impressed with the results that she became a certified arthritis aquatics instructor. Today, she not only shares her personal story with the other arthritis sufferers during the five classes she teaches each week, she also trains others interested in becoming instructors.
Regular exercise means Smith can perform everyday chores and stay independent for as long as possible, a key for many older adults. She refuses to let her disease define her or slow her down, and she's determined to show others that exercise can be the most powerful tool in fighting OA.
More Tips from Dr. White:
- Get moving. Find an exercise you like and stick with it. Aim for 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.
- Exercise with a friend or family member. You will be more motivated to stick with it. Make sure you have a support system.
- If you suffer from pain that prohibits you from exercising, talk with your doctor to discuss a pain management plan. Medication might be helpful in the short term.
- Shed the extra pounds. Exercise will help, but be sure to eat a healthy diet. This will benefit your overall health and lower your risk for heart disease and cancer.