Arthritis

Staying fit and healthy

In addition to taking medication, there are other ways in which young people managed their arthritis. One important area is keeping active, which can help people maintain the best possible level of mobility (ability to move around). In this section people talk about their different experiences of sport, going to the gym, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. They also discuss their diet and its impact on arthritis. We spoke to people who took part in all sorts of physical activity. Some were into intense sports such as running marathons, climbing mountains, playing rugby or training in martial arts. Others were happy to exercise at a more leisurely pace and enjoy gentle walks in the countryside or go shopping. Sometimes people didn’t exercise much because their arthritis was bad or because they simply weren’t motivated to stay fit and healthy.
 
Exercise, sport and PE
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Taking regular exercise is something that young people could do to help maintain or increase mobility. People described how exercise improved flexibility, balance, stamina, strength and muscle mass. It also helped prevent morning stiffness and joints “seizing up”. In addition to helping with arthritis, exercise has many other general health benefits including improved cardiovascular fitness and bone health. It can also help build confidence and improve emotional wellbeing.
 
Some of the people we spoke to did sport simply because they enjoyed it.
Although some people said they had pushed themselves through the pain when doing exercise, others felt it was important to have a more balanced approached so they didn’t “overdo it” and struggle to move the next day. David Z kept exercising at the gym despite the pain whereas Jessica went with her nanna to “a mobility gym” and exercised gently. She liked the fact that she didn’t have people watching her exercise and enjoyed the company. People could go to the gym to target specific areas of their body that were affected by arthritis.
Some of the people we spoke enjoyed taking part in high impact sports (sports which placed a lot of strain on joints), such as martial arts, rugby and dance. Bradley played football at school, Cat ran several marathons and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for charity, Lu played in a national basketball league at university, and Beth enjoyed dancing. Some had been advised by their doctor to avoid high impact sports but people sometimes felt their arthritis wasn’t bad enough to stop them taking part. People could use ankle, knee and hip supports for their joints if they needed it.
Exercise didn’t have to be extreme. Taking part in low impact activities was a good way of staying fit without hurting joints. For example, people talked about swimming to improve flexibility and stamina. Other more gentle forms of physical activity people enjoyed included walking on a treadmill, around the shops or across the countryside. Some took part in yoga and Tai Chi to improve flexibility. Doing breathing exercises and stretching could improve joint flexibility but also be calming and relaxing.
 
People who struggled to keep up the sport they loved sometimes found something new they could take part in. Beth struggled with Ballet because it put too much pressure on her knees but found it easier to do street dance.
During flare-ups or for people with more severe mobility difficulties, everyday tasks like getting out of bed, walking up stairs and doing the washing up could be like doing exercise.
Physiotherapy
Some of the people we spoke to went to the hospital to see a physiotherapist. They described how physiotherapists assessed their mobility and gave them exercise programmes to improve mobility or speed up recovery after surgery. Physiotherapists monitored people’s progress such as muscle mass and range of movements and could also focus on affected areas such as hips, knees, elbows, wrists and fingers. People described how the exercises could be “hard going” or sometimes “boring” but their physiotherapists were friendly and fun to be around. 
 
Physiotherapists often gave people exercises to do at home. For example, people had stretches they could do daily before they went to bed and when they woke up to reduce morning stiffness. They could also put together exercise sheets for people to work through at home and gave them things like Theraputty or stretchy bands to exercise with. Charlotte Z said her physiotherapist massaged a ‘knot’ in her back which was causing her problems.
People didn’t always feel that the exercises worked. For example, David felt the exercises were “too simple” but he found a helpful exercise app on his iPhone made by NASS (National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society). Not everyone did what their physiotherapist asked, even though they thought that the exercises would help them in the long run. People talked about time constraints, energy levels and a lack of motivation. Gemma said her physiotherapist wouldn’t be happy about her skipping the exercises.
 
If young people with arthritis are feeling well and not in the middle of a flare up they might not need to do “physiotherapy” exercises, but they could do regular activities to keep themselves fit and healthy. This may help with the boredom if they only did physiotherapy when they needed it (e.g. in order to target particular joints when they have restricted movements, or improve recovery after surgery).
 
Hydrotherapy
Hydrotherapy involves doing special exercises in a warm pool with a physiotherapist. If it’s busy then people may share the pool with other patients. People spoke highly of hydrotherapy and said it was “soothing” and helped relax their joints. Those with more severe arthritis said it was the best way for them to exercise because they didn’t have to put weight or pressure on their joints and they could float around freely in the warm water. Jazmin said it was the only type of exercise that helped during a flare up. Kyrun had used a kickboard (float) during his hydrotherapy. He had to push it under the water with his hands or hold it under the water using his feet. Some people felt “shattered” after hydrotherapy but others felt invigorated and full of energy. Charlotte Y was disappointed because the pool wasn’t open late enough for her to go after school but Jazmin was more than happy having time off school to go.
The people we spoke to usually had about 6 sessions in the pool then their physiotherapist gave them exercises to do in the hospital or at home. Charlotte Z said the hydrotherapy made her stronger so she could return to the hospital to begin “dry land” physiotherapy.
 
Not exercising
Not everyone exercised as regularly as they wanted to. Some struggled to work out during a flare up. Lu found flare ups “frustrating” because her hard work training with the swim team and basketball team would be put back. Sometimes people were too busy with school, university, or work. Others simply couldn’t be bothered to exercise – even though they knew that it would help them in the long run. Some didn’t exercise until doctors found the right balance of treatment to take the pain away. Remembering to exercise each day could also be a problem. Tom forgot to exercise when his arthritis was OK and only remembered when his joints hurt. Sarah regretted not doing her exercises because she had restricted movement in her shoulder but felt she could improve by taking up exercising again.

Food and diet
Most experts would agree that eating a well-balanced healthy diet is important for everyone including those with arthritis.

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Some of the people we spoke to were happy eating and drinking anything they wanted and didn’t feel a need to watch their diet. People who ate what they wanted sometimes exercised to balance things out.
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Others felt that eating healthily was important in order to maintain energy levels and to not put on too much weight. They felt that being overweight would put too much pressure on their joints. When people were on steroids their appetite could increase so they often watched what they ate (for more see ‘Steroids’). Dan was on steroids but said the pain of his arthritis put him off eating and he had difficulties putting on weight. Being able to wear nice clothes and feeling confident with how you look was also important to young people. Sometimes people exercised to keep the weight off. Kerrie wishes she could exercise more so she could have more treats.
Sometimes younger people who lived with their parents said their mum and dad did the cooking so they didn’t need to worry about diet, but some young people were taught to cook healthy food from a young age. People who cooked for themselves said they tried to have a balanced diet in order to stop feeling too tired. They avoided snacks and other “quick fixes” that would only give them energy for a short time. Some avoided eating fatty foods like takeaways and controlled their portion sizes. Sometimes this was difficult, particularly if friends wanted to eat fast food. It could be difficult if there was unhealthy junk food in the house. Sabrina made her siblings eat it so she didn’t have to look at it. People also said that eating regularly and not leaving long gaps between meals was an important way to maintain good energy levels.

Some people had tried special diets or took vitamin or Cod Liver supplements to achieve a more balanced diet. People also avoided particular food groups, such as carbohydrates or foods with certain things in like citrus acid, though they never knew if it made a difference to their symptoms. Sometimes people didn’t cut out food but made sure they ate plenty of healthy things like fruit and vegetables. Visit our 'Health and Weight' section for more about young people's experiences of diet and weight.

Last reviewed August 2015.
 

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