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Arthritis and exercise: Can Pilates really help?

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If you have arthritis, you may shy away from exercising due to the pain or restriction of movement it causes. However, exercise is an essential part of managing your symptoms, and the top non-drug treatment for osteoarthritis.

Broadly speaking, it's recommended that those with arthritis participate in regular low-intensity exercise to protect their joints from further injury. One particular kind of low-impact exercise that's seen increased popularity is Pilates.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a form of exercise that focuses on strengthening the body, particularly the core muscles, to improve overall fitness and boost wellbeing. It was developed because there's a strong link between mental and physical health, and it has influences from other exercises such as gymnastics, boxing, and even wrestling.1

Pilates can be used by anyone, no matter what their age, ability or fitness level. If you're a beginner or have a medical condition such as arthritis, Pilates can be practised using supportive equipment that helps you through the movements.

Although the research into Pilates is in the early stages, it has many potential health benefits. Practitioners believe regular practice can aid with improving balance, joint mobility, posture and muscle tone, as well as relieving stress and reducing the risk of injury.2

How Pilates can support healthy joints

There are a number of ways Pilates can help relieve symptoms of arthritis and support healthy joints, with benefits including an improved body awareness, strengthened muscles, reduced pain, and correction of postural imbalances.

Pain is one of the major symptoms in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Often, conventional therapeutic exercises are prescribed to help with arthritis. But Pilates could be just as effective for relieving symptoms and improving function. One study, for instance, found that Pilates was more effective at relieving pain and disability compared to conventional exercises.3 If you've already been prescribed therapeutic exercises by your practitioner, it could be worth adding Pilates to your regime for extra support.

Pilates may also play a role in improving body awareness with arthritis. Body awareness, or proprioception, is often affected in osteoarthritis due to the degeneration of cartilage in the joints. This can affect how well you can sense the position and the movement of a body part. But research has found that 3 Pilates sessions per week for 10 weeks can improve the sense of movement in osteoarthritis of the knee.4

If you don't have arthritis and are just looking at ways to try to prevent it, Pilates may also help. Research has shown 3 Pilates sessions per week for 8 weeks can improve muscle strength in the lower body, in addition to postural stability.5 What's more, muscle weakness and postural issues can not only exacerbate symptoms of arthritis, but also contribute to the development of the condition.5

Pilates can also be used safely after joint replacement, with a study confirming the safety of Pilates as a post-operative rehabilitation option after a total hip or knee arthroplasty.6 However, it's important for exercises to be modified according to the joint involved, and for precautions to be taken to avoid injury.

Although much of the research into Pilates is focused on osteoarthritis, there are benefits for rheumatoid arthritis as well. One study found 3 sessions per week for 8 weeks improved both the quality of life and pain levels in people with rheumatoid arthritis.7 Preventing cardiovascular issues is another goal, as people with rheumatoid arthritis have increased risk factors for cardiovascular disease.8 A regular Pilates practice can reduce many risk factors of heart disease, including body fat and blood pressure.9

How to get started with Pilates

Adding Pilates into your week can be simple. Many clinical Pilates instructors offer classes throughout the week, including sessions after work and over the weekend. Although many studies support 3 sessions per week as therapeutic, you can still experience benefits from attending at least one class each week. In-person classes are an ideal way to start your Pilates practice, as the instructor can help you to adapt exercises to your abilities and restrictions. Studios also provide the equipment used to modify movements for beginners.

If you're unsure whether Pilates is right for you, many studios offer trials for group classes - meaning you can try it out risk-free. Private lessons may also be available if you prefer more personalised support, or don't like exercising in a group setting. Additionally, if you prefer exercising from home, there are many online classes available to follow along with. Some may be paid subscriptions, but others are free - including those provided by the NHS.10

The bottom line

If you've got arthritis, adding low-impact exercise into your weekly routine, like Pilates, can be an important step to reducing your symptoms. Book a trial with your local studio and try it out or follow some lessons online to see how you like it. Alongside this, though, you should make sure you keep your diet healthy, and avoid excess alcohol and processed foods.

If you're interested in learning more about how to keep your joints healthy, select Joints from the Your health menu above.

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