Play Sports with Arthritis

Play Sports With Arthritis

“You still play soccer?” a yoga teacher asked me about four years ago. That word “still” has stuck with me ever since. Didn’t I look like someone who should be playing soccer?

I was about 49 then, and yes, I’d gotten hurt a few times on the pitch. But the latest study on sports and arthritis confirms my conviction that I and everyone else should keep doing sports as long as possible.

Writing in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise last month, researchers reported that jumping and stepping exercises strengthen knee joints.

They don’t just make the muscles, tendons and bones stronger, but actually improve the quality of cartilage in people with mild arthritis. The research is interesting because many people with arthritis have been advised to stick to moderate exercise. And many may believe they should not play sports with arthritis.

Use It or Lose It

Cartilage is the slippery white stuff you see on the end of a chicken drumstick. Inside a chicken’s knee or yours, it allows bones to glide smoothly against each other. But it doesn’t have a blood supply, so it heals slowly.

When cartilage wears out faster than it can heal, your bones grind against each other painfully. That’s arthritis. And from this description, you would think you should avoid using your joints in order to protect your cartilage.

In fact, the opposite is true. Just like other body parts, cartilage gradually disappears if you don’t use it. And now it looks like more vigorous exercise is more beneficial.

For the latest study, 80 women from 50 to 65 -years of age with mild knee pain from arthritis were assigned to either an exercise group or a non-exercise group.

The exercise group worked out for almost an hour three times a week: 15 minutes of warm-up, 25 minutes of stepping and jumping, and 15 minutes of cooling down.

Play Sports With Arthritis

They ran forward, backward and sidewise. And starting in the third week, they jumped over foam “fences.” The exercise instructors gradually raised the height of the fences from 5 centimeters (2 inches) to 20 centimeters (8 inches.)

They also stepped up and down from benches that started at 10 centimeters (4 inches) and were increased in height to 20 centimeters (8 inches).

At the end of a year, the researchers measured the effects on the cartilage in the volunteers’ knees using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They found signs that the cartilage strengthened in the exercise group and weakened in the non-exercise group. The exercise group also got stronger legs overall. They did not experience more or less pain.

After reading this, I’m more convinced than ever that middle-aged people should play sports. They should even play sports with arthritis. And they should not avoid demanding sports, the kind that require a lot of jumping and sudden changes of direction.

Of course, you should consider the risks if you play sports with arthritis. People who seriously injure their knees, for example by flowing out an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), run a higher risk of developing arthritis later on.

That’s why I advocate a careful training program, such as the ones we’ve outlined for basketball and soccer in this newsletter. You can reduce your risk of arthritis – and injury – at the same time.