Arthritis, winter, and limiting pain with exercise

This article discusses how to manage arthritis so you can enjoy the cold winter months with less pain

Don't let cold weather deter you from exercising

The cold winter months can be a tough time of year if you love the outdoors, but don’t love how cold weather makes you feel. If you have osteoarthritis, you may think twice before exercising outside because you fear a flare-up. Joint pain can debilitate, and arthritic joints don’t always respond well to the cold. If you are proactive, you can stay fit and ease the pain of arthritis so you enjoy the cold weather, not dread it.

The simplest way to relieve joint pain may be counterintuitive. Arthritic pain is best managed by activity. Movement increases circulation in and around the joint, reducing inflammation and pain. When you move, you recruit muscles, redistribute stress, and reduce tension in muscles which become tighter and stiffer with pain. You can do most of the activities you would do if you didn’t have arthritis (unless you’re a hard-core mogul skier), just with a little more TLC (tender loving care).

Bone-on-bone arthritis does not mean you should stop working out

Many people are afraid to exercise because they were told they have “bone-on-bone” arthritis. While that doesn’t sound good, (and physicians don’t always consider how words may affect you), you will not cause things to worsen by gentle exercise. The pain you feel is not because the bones are colliding, but other factors that impact the structures supporting the joint. There may be inflammation in the highly innervated connective tissue (periosteum and synovial lining) that surround your joints causing pain. Tissues surrounding an affected joint get irritated when pushed too much or too little (sedentary life). Managing arthritis is about finding that “just right” amount of activity that eases the stiffness without triggering inflammation.


Below are suggestions to stay active while preventing the pain associated with arthritis.

  1. Move often. Incorporate spurts of movement throughout the day. This can be as simple as setting a timer to get up from the desk every 20–40 minutes, getting up frequently from your chair to refill your teacup, or parking further away from your destination.
  2. Layer up. Bundle up before hitting the trails, skis, snowshoes or sidewalk. Take care not to leave body parts exposed to the cold. Wear gloves (mittens preferred), a scarf and layer clothing. You can remove layers, but feeling cold on the trail may trigger muscle guarding and joint pain.
  3. Strength train. Strengthening and flexibility exercises are important to maintain stability across a joint. If you are not sure what to do, seek guidance from a professional that can assess your body and create a custom exercise program specific to your needs. The surface of your joints changes with degeneration, and the exercises that once felt good may require modifications to fit your body.
  4. Support the joint. If you have advanced arthritis, your joint may feel unstable. In this case, a brace can provide the stability your muscles and ligaments cannot.
  5. Consider yoga. Yoga (and Tai Chi) are low-impact alternatives to other forms of exercise like skiing. When done mindfully, they can help to improve balance, flexibility and strength (in addition to a host of other benefits). If you struggle with pain, it’s worth finding a professional who may offer suggestions on how to modify poses or positions so you experience the benefits without the pain.
  6. Take medication if needed. If your doctor has recommended supplements or medication, continue to take these as prescribed. If you resist taking medication when you need it, the pain may reach a level where exercise is not possible.
  7. Maintain a healthy body weight. If you are overweight, the load and pain on arthritic joints may increase.
  8. Eat a healthy diet. Anti-inflammatory foods and spices are a healthy way to minimize pain naturally (stay tuned for a list of these foods in a future blog.) You guessed it — fruits and vegetables are high on the list; holiday cookies are not, unfortunately.
  9. Use heat and soft tissue modalities. Warm baths, heating pads, massage and manual therapy (by a licensed professional) can nurture your muscles and joints. When you combine manual therapy and modalities with proper exercise strategies, you are more likely to enjoy a pain-free winter season, even with arthritis!

This list may feel long, but the recommendations are simple. Make slight changes consistently over time and see how your symptoms change. Before you know it, the weather will get warmer and you’ll be looking forward to next winter rather than dreading it.

Let me know how it goes. In the meantime, I’ll see you out there!


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