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Alternative Exercises for People With Arthritis

Posted on 30 November 2011

The slogan “No pain, no gain” doesn’t apply here. Alternative exercises are designed to avoid pain and at the same time produce healthy benefits.

Each of three disciplines from the ancient East — yoga, tai chi and qi gong — strengthens muscles, improves balance and releases endorphins, the brain chemicals that give you a sense of well-being and relaxation.

These three are designed to promote mental and physical relaxation and can offer some of meditation’s benefits. Faithful practitioners sometimes report that their improved mobility reduces their need for painkillers.

But these disciplines do not provide aerobic benefits or the strength building that comes from weight lifting. For some, they are a natural complement to other exercise, such as walking, aquatics and weight training.

“Yoga” means union, and it focuses on bringing the body, mind and spirit into harmony.

There are several types of yoga — all originating from the holistic Indian healing system — but the most commonly used in Western cultures is hatha yoga. Hatha yoga provides low-impact, full-body conditioning and involves gentle stretches and balancing exercises.

Its benefits can include:

  • Relief from chronic pain.
  • Reduced depression.
  • Improved circulation.
  • Lower cholesterol.
  • Balancing the immune and hormonal systems.

Experts say that yoga is especially helpful to people with arthritis because it impacts many body systems including the muscular, lymphatic, endocrine and immune systems.

A yoga session involves a series of postures called asanas and breathing exercises called pranayama. Sitting, standing and prone postures are used with careful attention to breathing and awareness of body sensations.

Classes last from an hour to 90 minutes and are recommended at least weekly. Of course, greater benefits come from daily practice.

Tai Chi
Tai chi is made-to-order for people with arthritis because it involves little impact. It stretches muscles, lubricates joints and increases circulation.

Traditional Chinese medicine asserts that tai chi nourishes the body’s organs by circulating “qui,” (pronounced CHEE). Qui means “essence of life” or “vital energy.”

There are many types of tai chi, but all are based on meditation and gentle movements.

It is best to take a class to make sure you are doing the movements correctly. After you learn the basics, you can practice on your own.

Developed about 600 years ago, tai chi is a combination of martial arts, spiritual practice and exercise. Movements are slow and graceful and have descriptive names like “grasping the bird’s tail.”

The exercises are done with joints held softly, not in locked or stiff positions. Loose clothing and comfortable shoes (or no shoes) are appropriate.

Qi Gong
Dating back more than 3,000 years, qi gong is designed to direct the flow of qui through the body to promote health and self-healing.

Although it offers similar benefits, qi gong is different from tai chi because its movements are less graceful. Whereas tai chi movements are fluid, qi gong postures are separate and distinct, and positions are held for a few seconds.

If you have severe osteoarthritis in the knees or hips, you may find qi gong easier to perform than tai chi. People of every age and fitness level — even those in bed or a wheelchair — can do qi gong.

Classes usually begin with meditation and breathing exercises to help quiet your mind and body. Then there are simple calisthenics-type movements with concentration on breathing.

Some people with arthritis have reported that after several months of qi gong, joint stiffness and swelling decreased markedly.

Finding a Teacher
To find a tai chi or qi gong instructor, check with health centers, community centers and senior centers. Physical therapists also are a good source for referrals. If there is a Chinese medicine center in your area, you can check there as well. The Qi Journal Web site also lists teachers.

There are no certification standards for teachers, so choose wisely. Instructors who conduct classes at a reputable health center are a good place to start.

Take Note
These methods are not meant to be strenuous. In fact, most instructors believe the internal effects of qi are more important than the exercise.

Be sure to check out a class before you sign up. Any class that emphasizes martial arts or self defense is not tai chi or qi gong. You are looking for an experience in soft, meditative movements.

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