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Sufferers of joint pain need not be inactive

A recent study has identified realistic minimum physical activity threshold for adults with lower-extremity joint symptoms.

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Staying active every day is a powerful elixir – it improves your performance, attitude and elevates your health. And this truth is not limited by age. The list of benefits from physical activity is long and well-documented, from reducing the risk of developing heart disease to better mental health. Even those with a chronic disease can benefit from weaving activity into their daily routine. Research shows adults with a chronic illness who stick to the recommended weekly activity prescription enjoy as much as a 20-per-cent reduction in their risk of premature death. But while the body is clearly made for motion, joint pain often prevents many people from developing a healthy activity habit.

Current guidelines that call for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week are challenging for joint-pain sufferers, especially because the target requires activity lasting at least 10 minutes at a time. A 2004 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatism suggests that two in five adults with hip, knee and/or foot/ankle-joint conditions not only fail to meet these guidelines but do not engage in a single 10-minute session of moderate activity in a week. Fewer than 11 per cent of U.S. adults with knee osteoarthritis are reported to achieve these recommendations.

This pattern of non-activity establishes a slippery slope. Maintaining strength, balance and physical conditioning is imperative as we age and is often as great a concern as cardiovascular health. Opting out of an active lifestyle is not an option. But how do you increase your activity if movement hurts?

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Asking a sedentary individual with osteoarthritic knees to reach the 150-minute target of moderate activity each week is unrealistic. A goal of over 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day, every day, can be so intimidating people decide to turn away from it altogether. And, as habits become more sedentary, health declines.

Recognizing this barrier, a study recently published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research successfully challenged the current activity guidelines and identified a more realistic minimum physical activity threshold for adults with lower-extremity joint symptoms. The study analyzed data from 1,629 adults, over 49 with symptomatic, lower-extremity joint pain, achiness or stiffness over a two-year period. The results support an intermediate threshold of 45 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity to promote improved or sustained high function. Instead of over 20 minutes, just about 6 1/2 minutes of daily moderate exercise may be enough to drive gains for joint-pain sufferers.

While further research is required to confirm these results, this is good news for those with joint pain who may view the target as more palatable and, consequently, decide a few minutes a day is doable. Knowing that even a small investment of time can have a meaningful impact on physical functioning, increase energy levels while reducing pain and stiffness is powerful motivation to get up and get moving.

Talk to your team of health providers and develop a strategy to meet your needs. Brisk walking is usually a good place to start. As your fitness level improves, so will your pace. In the early days of establishing this habit, let your mobility and pain guide your progression. Muscle soreness from a new activity is normal, increased joint pain or swelling is not.

Find 6 1/2 minutes a day and you will be on your way.

Dr. Dwight Chapin, B.Sc(H)., D.C., is the clinic director of High Point Wellness Centre in Mississauga, team chiropractor for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and on-site clinician for employees of The Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter @HighPtWellness.

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