Strength and Muscle Training for People With Arthritis

While aerobic exercise has many excellent health benefits, such as maintaining the heart and lungs and increasing cardiovascular fitness, strength training is important too. Here's why:

  • Strengthening exercises can help keep or increase muscle strength, as well as build and maintain bone density.
  • Strong muscles help support and protect joints affected by arthritis.
Older Hispanic woman lifting weights in living room
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Health Benefits of Strength Training

Research has shown that strengthening exercises are both safe and effective for women and men of all ages, including those who are not in perfect health. Strength training can help reduce the symptoms of numerous diseases and chronic conditions, among them:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Obesity
  • Back pain
  • Depression

Strength training, particularly in conjunction with regular aerobic exercise, can also have a profound impact on a person's mental and emotional health.

Arthritis Relief

Tufts University completed a strength-training program with older men and women with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis. Study results showed that strength training:

  • Decreased pain by 43%
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved physical performance
  • Improved signs and symptoms of the disease
  • Decreased disability

The effectiveness of strength training to ease the pain of osteoarthritis was just as potent, if not more potent, as medications. Similar effects of strength training have been seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Reduce Slips and Falls

As people age, poor balance and flexibility contribute to falls and broken bones. Bone fractures can result in significant disability and sometimes fatal complications. Strengthening exercises, when done properly and through the full range of motion, increase a person's flexibility and balance, which decrease the likelihood and severity of falls.

Strengthen Bones

Women lose significant bone density during the menopausal transition — about 10 percent, on average. About half of women may lose more bone density, as much as 20 percent, during the five or six years of perimenopause. Bone density then continues to further decrease with age. However, strength training can be a powerful antidote to this natural process: results from a Tufts University study showed that strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk for fractures among women aged 50-70.

Weight Control

Strength training is crucial to weight control because individuals who have more muscle mass have a higher metabolic rate. Muscle is active tissue that consumes calories while stored fat uses very little energy. Strength training can provide up to a 15% increase in metabolic rate, which is enormously helpful for weight loss and long-term weight control.

Glucose Control

Studies also show that lifestyle changes such as strength training have a profound impact on helping older adults manage their diabetes.

Healthy State of Mind

Strength training provides similar improvements in depression as anti-depressant drugs. Strength training also improves self-confidence and self-esteem, which has a strong impact on the overall quality of life.​

Improve Sleep

People who exercise regularly enjoy improved sleep quality.

  • They fall asleep more quickly
  • Sleep more deeply
  • Awaken less often
  • Sleep longer

Sleep benefits obtained as a result of strength training are comparable to treatment with medication but without the side effects or the expense.

Healthy Heart

Strength training is also important for cardiac health because heart disease risk is lower when the body is leaner.

Check With Your Doctor

Most likely you will be able to participate in strength training; however, this is a decision you must make in consultation with your doctor. Discuss your specific conditions and goals with your doctor so they can make any necessary recommendations.

NIAMS suggests, there may be many exercises that are off-limits for people with a particular type of arthritis or when joints are swollen and inflamed. The amount and form of exercise recommended for each individual will vary depending on:

  • Type of arthritis
  • Joints involved
  • Levels of inflammation
  • Stability of joints
  • Joint replacements
  • Other limitations

Start Slow

It is important to start conservatively and progress slowly. Consider working with a qualified fitness instructor or physical therapist, at least for a few sessions, to make sure your exercise form is correct.

  • Pay attention to your body
  • Strength training should never cause pain
  • Feeling good is an indication that you are exercising properly
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Article Sources
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  1. Ji M-X, Yu Q. Primary osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Chronic Dis Transl Med. 2015;1(1):9–13. doi: 10.1016/j.cdtm.2015.02.006

  2. Nelson ME, Fiatarone MA, Morganti CM, Trice I, Greenberg RA, Evans WJ. Effects of high-intensity strength training on multiple risk factors for osteoporotic fractures. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 1994;272(24):1909-14. doi: 10.1001/jama.1994.03520240037038

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