Overcoming Exercise Obstacles

Even for sufferers of joint or back pain, exercise is possible.

We all know that exercise is a crucial part of maintaining good overall health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommends getting about 30 minutes of exercise each day — as does Weight Watchers in its Healthy Guidelines.

But if you’re not used to exercising, getting into the habit can be hard. And millions of Americans have extra hurdles beyond motivation: It’s hard to work out for any length of time if you suffer from back pain, joint pain, or other physical conditions that can knock exercise clear off the priority list.

More Exercise Ideas

As well as the standby low-impact favorite, swimming, many Weight Watchers Community users with flexibility and mobility issues recommend chair dancing. With classes, DVDs, and a big following, it bills itself as a seated exercise program that improves muscle tone, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. It’s fun, too!

Many also take water aerobics classes. Hard as it may be to believe, it is entirely possible to break into a sweat in the water — it’s not just visibly discernible.

For a low-impact stretching workout that’s good for beginners or anyone wanting to expand their body’s full range of motion, try our 25-minute joint-friendly workout.

For many people with a new pain, or a new diagnosis, it can be tempting to be cautious and reduce their amount of activity. Yet, in most cases, exercise is still an option, and in some, it can also actually be beneficial. So, whether you’re suffering from joint pain and arthritis, or back pain, or you’re carrying extra weight, we’ve outlined some gentle ways to lower yourself into an activity program. It goes without saying, of course, that you should always consult with your physician before starting, or making changes to, an activity program.

Joint pain
The human body is composed of hundreds of joints, without which we couldn’t walk, turn our heads, or get out of bed. However, we tend not to notice the impact joints have on our everyday lives until they begin to hurt. “Joint pain can be caused by injuries, overuse syndromes, imbalanced muscle tension, trauma, or other conditions like arthritis,” says Andrea Metcalf, an expert trainer whose specialties include fitness for older people. “And when someone has joint pain, their exercise goals may suffer.”

Those with arthritic joints may find their condition especially painful. “Arthritis is a progressive disease of the joints in which smooth cartilage that covers the ends of the bones gradually wears away,” says Dr. Calin S. Moucha, associate chief of joint replacement surgery in the department of orthopedics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The condition is caused by a number of factors, including genetics and lifestyle; and osteoarthritis, the most common type, leads to stiff, swollen, painful joints.

Exercise options
Cycling and swimming are particularly beneficial because they preserve joint motion and muscle tone, says Moucha. Swimming also harbors a specific advantage over dry-land activities: no obvious signs of sweating! “I hate to sweat,” says Susan Anderson, a WeightWatchers.com Community user, who swims about three times a week in spite of an arthritic knee. “[Swimming] is the one exercise that I love to do.”

Excess weight
It's a Catch-22: Carrying a significant amount of excess weight can make exercising truly challenging, which is hard for those starting a weight-loss plan. “It can dramatically influence one’s ability to move the related joints through a normal range of motion,” says physical therapist Tom Purvis. “Furthermore, the additional body weight turns all activities into ‘weight lifting,’ and fatigue ensues more quickly.” Besides affecting the joints’ range of motion, extra weight can negatively alter the alignment of the joints. Physical activity, if not approached correctly, can then exacerbate the condition.

Exercise options
There is a safe, comfortable way to get active. Try pool exercises, walking, and Pilates. “These three, based on the individual’s needs, can provide effective results without putting unnecessary stress on the body,” says Los Angeles-based Pilates instructor Gia Marakas. Pool exercises and walking are gentle on the joints, while Pilates, which can be performed exclusively on a mat, helps build strength and muscle elasticity. As it focuses on building the core muscles and using them to assist with other types of motion in the body, the overall effects can help reduce stress on individual body parts over time.

Purvis advises that if you're just starting out with any exercise, make sure your actions are controlled (slow and steady to avoid injury) and performed with appropriate progression (no need to take on too much activity all at once). “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” says Purvis.

Back pain
It comes in many forms (lower, middle, or upper back pain) and has many potential causes (stress, heavy lifting, bending the wrong way in yoga class, etc.). “Most people at some point in their lives have back pain,” says exercise physiologist William Sukala. “Most of it being self-resolving with rest and removal of the offending cause for a few days.” Back pain conditions range from acute to chronic and vary in intensity from a mild annoyance to a can’t-stand-up-or-bend-down situation.

Exercise options
Since there are so many varieties and causes of back pain it’s essential to check with your doctor before engaging in any type of exercise, lest you make a bad situation worse. A good rule of thumb however: if it hurts, don’t do it. “The acute vs. chronic question is going to make a difference as to which exercises can be performed and which should be avoided,” adds Sukala. “If it’s something more severe, the person needs to be seen in consult and have further work-up for treatment options.”

About the writer
Dana Robinson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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