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Keeping Active With Diabetes and Arthritis

by Kristina Ernst, RN, CDE, and Marian A. Minor, PT, PhD

Daily physical activity is essential for good health and blood glucose control in people with diabetes. But what if you also have arthritis? One in five American adults has been diagnosed with arthritis, and half of all adults with diagnosed diabetes also have arthritis. Symptoms of arthritis can make it difficult to be active. But don’t let that stop you in your efforts: Frequent physical activity can help reduce the pain and stiffness of arthritis by improving muscle strength, endurance, and flexibility. Routine exercise also increases energy levels and helps with weight control. Other benefits include lowered blood pressure, a lower risk of heart disease, and sometimes improved sleep patterns.

If you have arthritis as well as diabetes, it is important to keep your muscles as strong as possible, because the stronger the muscles and tissues are around the joints, the better they will support and protect those joints. When you don’t exercise, your muscles become weak and your bones become more brittle, which leads to a worsening of arthritis symptoms and to other health problems such as osteoporosis, the decrease in bone density that can lead to bone fractures.

About arthritis
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, in which cartilage in the joints deteriorates. Cartilage is the tough but flexible tissue that normally covers the ends of bones where they meet in a joint, allowing for easy movement. Over time, as cartilage deteriorates in an affected joint, the space between the bone ends may narrow, extra bits of bone may develop on the bone ends, and the joint may change shape. These changes can lead to friction, pain, stiffness, and further joint damage. Osteoarthritis often affects more than one joint, and while it can affect any joint in the body, some joints are affected much more often than others. These include the knees, hips, and joints in the neck, lower back, and fingers.

The primary cause of osteoarthritis is unknown, but excess weight and a family history of arthritis raise the risk of developing it. So does aging. Osteoarthritis can also be a result of overuse, trauma, or injury.

Osteoarthritis of the hips and knees often causes people to limit their physical activity. However, regular moderate exercise does not make arthritis worse in these or other joints. In fact, regular moderate exercise such as walking, swimming, and biking can reduce pain and improve strength and flexibility in affected joints. Research shows that most people with osteoarthritis feel better and can do more when they exercise regularly.

Regular exercise can also be beneficial for people with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that is characterized by inflammation in the lining of the joint. The inflammation causes swelling and pain, and over time it can destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. Eventually, the joint can lose its shape and become unstable and misaligned. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect just a few joints or many, and if it affects a joint on one side of the body, it usually affects the corresponding joint on the other side, too. Most often, rheumatoid arthritis begins in the hands and feet, but it can affect many other joints, including the hips, knees, elbows, and shoulders. People with rheumatoid arthritis also often have body-wide symptoms, such as fatigue. What causes rheumatoid arthritis is not known.

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