“Arthritis Lifestyle”, the Key to Managing Your Pain?

Arthritis stinks. The pain and stiffness can really put a damper on your day (or night), so you’ve probably put a lot of thought into what helps relieve your symptoms. Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel better when you add some exercise and movement into your day, so you try to do yoga or walk the dog when you get a chance. Maybe a good night’s sleep helps, but it’s so hard to stay asleep all night with the pain! 

Trying to work towards getting more exercise, movement and sleep are great goals for dealing with your arthritis, but doctors who have completed a study on arthritis management are now saying that you shouldn’t look at these habits as separate parts of your day. Rather, they believe that you should know how movement and sleep work together to improve or worsen your symptoms. They also urge arthritis sufferers to know their “arthritis lifestyle” so they can more effectively manage their pain

older asian man with his eyes closed and his palm on his cheek
There is a link to sleep and arthritis pain, if you get enough, then you can manage your pain better.

How Much You Move and Sleep Are Key

It’s already been proven that movement and sleep are especially important for people with arthritis. Getting enough quality sleep can:

  • Help you manage pain better, and even raise your pain threshold
  • Boost your immune system
  • Allow your body to repair damaged tissue

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep loss makes certain pain centers in the brain more active and reactive than they would be after a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, you might find yourself in a vicious circle, in which pain makes it difficult to sleep, and lack of sleep makes it difficult to feel better. As Christopher R. Morris, MD, a rheumatologist in private practice in Kingsport, Tennessee, points out, if a person sleeps poorly, “the muscles can’t fully relax. If they’re fatigued, they hurt. If they hurt, they get fatigued, and they hurt more.”

How about moving your body? Exercising, as well as movement that isn’t specifically considered “working out,” is the other key to managing arthritis symptoms. For example, according to research published in Arthritis Care & Research, people with lower extremity joint pain and stiffness who engaged in moderate to vigorous activity for at least 45 minutes a week had improved function compared with less active adults.

Unfortunately, most people with arthritis don’t move enough. According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, only 36% of adults with arthritis get the recommended weekly amount of physical activity. Again, while some of this may have to do with lifestyle restrictions, some of it may be related to another vicious circle: you hurt, so you sit more, so you hurt some more. But now we know that you also need to consider how your sleep affects your exercise vs. sitting habits, and vice versa, as well as how they all interact to make up your “arthritis lifestyle.”

What’s Your “Arthritis Lifestyle”?

Dr. Lynne Feehan, PhD, a physical therapist and clinical associate professor of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and her colleagues, are interested in that exact issue: how do people with arthritis balance movement, sitting, and sleeping throughout their days, and how does this balance affect them? Feehan believes that you can’t separate these habits: “Evidence suggests that keeping more physically active during the day makes you more likely to have better sleep quality and duration at night,” she says. 

She also believes that “We can’t assume that a patient with knee arthritis needs to increase their physical activity, because maybe it’s their sleep or sitting behavior that are bigger issues.” That’s why she and her colleagues looked at 172 people with arthritis and their exercise, sitting, and sleeping habits and created the following four “arthritis lifestyle” categories. Take a look and see which one you might fall into!

caucasian hands holding each other on a woman's lap with a skirt and cardigan on

  • The High Sitter Type: People in this category spend an average of 13 hours per day sitting, which is well above the recommended threshold of 10 hours. They get less than 20 minutes of exercise (such as brisk walking) a day, and move around for only around 1.6 hours per day (for example, walking to their car or moving around the house). They also get less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep, getting only around 6.9 hours per night on average. 
  • The Low Sleeper Type – How about people who get even less sleep than that? “Low sleepers” get only around 6.5 hours per night on average, and they also sit too much for good health (around 12 hours per day). But they do get in more exercise, as they tend to walk briskly for about 30 minutes a day and move around for approximately 3 hours a day in their daily lives.  
  • The High Sleeper Type – As the name implies, this group gets more sleep than the others, clocking in at a luxurious 8 hours a night on average. They also sit less, hitting the more recommended amount of around 10 hours per day. But they need to move more: they only tend to exercise for around 18 minutes a day, although they move around for approximately 2.5 hours. 
  • The Balanced Activity Type – This is the category you should be aiming for! People in this group get an average of almost 7.5 hours per night, get plenty of exercise (around 45 minutes a day), move around for more than 4 hours a day, and only sit for around 9 hours. 

What To Do

older man sitting on a table with a male doctor touching his knee with one hand and holding a clipboard in another.
If you keep experiencing a lot of pain, it is best to talk to your doctor about your arthritis lifestyle.

The categories above are a way for you to assess your own lifestyle, and how your movement, sitting, and sleep habits might be interacting to affect your pain. Your best bet is to strive to be in the “balanced activity” category, although it’s understandable that this might be difficult if you’re juggling a busy lifestyle or having trouble sleeping. But there are things you can do! Dr. Feehan suggests making small, incremental lifestyle changes, so that they’re more likely to stick, and to make a real difference. 

For example, to try and get more sleep:

  • Talk to your doctor if pain is the problem. In addition, try to find ways to minimize joint pain right before bed, like timing your medication schedule or even using a heating pad or taking a warm shower. 
  • Try getting to bed earlier, perhaps by moving your schedule around a bit and cutting down on couch time in the evening (which could also help cut down on your sitting time!)
  • On the other hand, don’t linger in bed if you can’t sleep. Get up, move around, and do something that’s not too stimulating until you feel sleepy. 
  • Make sure your bedroom is reserved for sleep, not working, watching TV, or using your phone or tablet. 
  • Get moving! As Dr. Feehan has made clear, exercise and sleep go hand in hand to help relieve symptoms. Exercise relieves stress, which can help you get more rest, and can help to tire you out.

When it comes to getting more of that precious exercise into your day, remember not to be afraid to move! Dr. Feehan points out that slowly increasing your physical activity level shouldn’t end up making your pain worse, and any extra aches you feel should be temporary, and hopefully lessen over time. “The pain most people feel is not doing damage or making the arthritis worse, and there are tremendous benefits,” she says. 

Walking not your thing? You can try some more low impact activities, like spinning, biking, or swimming. Yoga is also a great way to add movement and stretching into your day! 

The most important takeaway in all this is that each of us has a unique lifestyle that affects our health. For people suffering from arthritis, knowing how to balance movement, sitting, and sleep in their daily lives can make all the difference in managing pain and improving quality of life. 

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