Walk Away Arthritis

Everybody into the pool!

When you have arthritis, warm water exercise can encourage your stiff joints to become more flexible, while relaxing your tight muscles. The buoyancy of the water supports your joints. Yet water is also resistant: Pushing against it as you move through it helps you build strength. “And water walking is a wonderful aerobic exercise,” says St. Louis-based physical therapist Kathleen Ferrell, PT.

“Water exercise can usually be continued during flare-ups because the warmth and buoyancy help decrease pain and stiffness and make movement much easier,” says Shannon Whetstone Mescher, CHES (certified health education specialist), vice president of programs and services at the Arthritis Foundation (AF) in Atlanta. But you’ll need some guidance from your doctor or physical therapist on how hard to push yourself when you are having a flare-up.

In the early 1980’s, the AF and the YMCA created a series of water workout courses especially for people with arthritis. Today, these popular classes are held all over the US. We invited Ferrell, who was one of the original AF/YMCA program designers, to devise a water walking workout especially for Jorjette readers.

Your Joint Protection Program

The basic components of any fitness program are cardiovascular workouts, strength training, and flexibility exercises. The latter is particularly important to help arthritis sufferers ease their pain and stay active. Our water walking workout addresses all three fitness components with a combination of low-impact walking and range-of-motion exercises. And since arthritis can affect any joint, this is a total-body program, so it’s sure to include your problem area.

It’s important to complement your water workouts with regular strength training. Work with your doctor or arthritis specialist to devise a strength plan that works for you.

Your Water Warmup

To avoid pain and injury, a warmup is essential for all exercisers — but especially for arthritis sufferers. Start with the following set of full-body, range-of-motion exercises that will increase your flexibility.

Walk into the water to chest height. (The body part you’re working should be underwater. You’ll need to go into deeper water or crouch down to get your shoulders underwater when doing the first two exercises.) Do all of these moves slowly. Never stretch to the point of pain or discomfort.

Do at least 3 repetitions of each. Depending on your individual needs and condition, you can do as many as 10 of any move to help loosen a stiff joint. Repeat the entire set of exercises to cool down after your water walking workout.

  • Lift your arms over your head.
  • Swing your arms out to the sides.
  • Bend and straighten your elbows.
  • Bend and straighten your wrists.
  • With each hand held in a loose fist, bend and straighten your fingers.
  • Take high steps, lifting your raised knee toward your chest. If your knees are sore, and this is uncomfortable, bend them behind you.
  • Standing on one leg, swing the other leg out to the side; then switch sides.
  • Flex and extend each ankle (up, then down).
  • Swing each ankle in a circle.

Technique. Standing in water that’s between hip- and waist-deep, start walking, swinging your arms reciprocally with your legs. Start slowly, then pick up speed. Work up to a comfortable, brisk pace.

Duration and intensity. Start with 5 minutes of water walking, then gradually increase the time until you feel it could be rated as moderate, which the AF describes as anywhere from “still light but starting to work” to “still comfortable but harder” to “getting to be somewhat hard.”

Frequency. Do it three to five times a week

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