Get in the swim of things with water exercises for Arthritis

If you could invent the perfect exercise for arthritis, it might let you strengthen your muscles without lifting weights, improve your flexibility without causing too much pain, and run and jump with no chance of falling. It might even include a massage.

You can find all of this in water. According to the Arthritis Foundation, water is a safe, ideal environment for improving fitness while relieving arthritis pain and stiffness. A warm-water swimming pool may have these therapeutic elements:

  • Warmth that improves your circulation.
  • Buoyancy that supports your joints and can act as resistance to help build muscle strength.
  • A spa with jet nozzles that send streams of warm water to massage your body.

Look before you leap

If you're interested in trying water exercise, the first step is to talk to your doctor. Once you have determined that water exercise is safe for you, choosing a program is your next step.

Shannon Whetstone Mescher, a certified health education specialist and consultant for the Arthritis Foundation, says the first thing to look for is the word arthritis in the class title. "You need to know the class is appropriate," she says.

Some movements or exercises aren't safe for arthritic joints. For example, an arthritis-approved class would not use resistance devices like weights.

"The resistance of the water is enough," says Whetstone Mescher. She explains that an instructor who is trained to teach people with arthritis will understand your needs.

The Arthritis Foundation partners with most YMCAs to provide water exercise instructors who are certified to teach people with arthritis.

But knowing that a class is safe won't necessarily put you at ease in a new environment. A class made up of other first-timers, who may be ready to make new friends, might be less intimidating than an established class. It could also provide a built-in arthritis support network.

If you want to exercise on your own, Whetstone Mescher suggests attending or observing one class. Then you can use what you've learned on an open-swim day to get started.

Whether you join a class or go it alone, check out the pool first. AARP recommends that you make sure the ladders and grab bars are secure and that there is a lifeguard on duty. Beyond these issues, Whetstone Mescher says people with arthritis should check for the following criteria:

  • Water temperature between 83 and 90 degrees—ask the management how warm the water is.
  • Some sort of graduated entry, like steps with a handrail. A ladder can be difficult for someone with limited mobility.
  • A wheelchair lift if you are in a wheelchair.

Be careful in there

Though you're submerged in warmth and comfort, you still need to be cautious. The Arthritis Foundation recommends that you rest a few minutes in the water before you start exercising so that you give your muscles a chance to relax. Then follow this advice:

  • Be aware of how you are feeling as you exercise—if you feel light-headed or nauseated, get out of the pool.
  • Start slowly and don't overdo it.
  • Don't force any movements; just stretch gently.
  • If you have pain that lasts more than one or two hours after exercise, shorten your next session.

Some pools offer spas with jet nozzles. The air and water mixture from these jets can give you a therapeutic massage. But limit your spa time to stretching and relaxing—exercising in the higher water temperatures could cause you to become overheated, warns Whetstone Mescher. Don't get in water that is hotter than 104 degrees. Even in lower-temperature spas, don't stay in longer than 10 or 15 minutes.

Stay with it

It can be difficult to stick with even the best exercise program. To make it easier, ask a friend to join you. You can help keep each other motivated, and you'll both go home from the pool with a well-earned sense of accomplishment.

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