I am 81 and until recently kept fit with regular ballroom– and tea-dancing classes. Now the flare-ups from arthritis in my knees are so bad I can no longer keep up these activities. Gardening, and even household cleaning are also a struggle. What can I do to keep my fitness levels up?
You probably already realise that, despite the pain and frustration, it is far better to stay fit and active than to give in to your arthritis. As long as you are cautious and avoid stressing your knees during flare-ups, you will be doing yourself a favour by keeping your knees, hips and ankles mobile and your muscles strong.
As I don’t know what other limitations you might have, my suggestions are for general guidance – always check with your GP and an advanced fitness trainer before you take up activities that may turn out to be unsuitable for other underlying reasons. Also, remember that new, unfamiliar activities can take a bit of getting used to – so keep an open mind for the first few weeks.
The swimming pool is a great keep-fit option, because the water reduces the strain on your knees. Swimming will certainly help with overall fitness, especially heart and lungs, but you may want to avoid breast-stroke, where the leg action is not good for dodgy knees. For a sociable and fun workout, try a seniors aqua aerobics class. Or try wearing a floatation belt and “walk” upright in deep water, where your feet don’t touch the ground: no knee pressure, and a very good workout (build up to 20-minute sessions).
You may be able to help reduce your pain and flare-ups with some very careful strengthening of your leg muscles, especially around the knees. This is best done with expert guidance. The local leisure centre or gym should have an advanced instructor with a “REPS 3 exercise referral” qualification, who can set you up with a programme.
If you do try out the gym, see whether you can manage a cycling machine (go for one with a back rest). Get the instructor to set the machine up properly for you to minimise knee pain. An alternative is an “arm cycling” machine, where you sit and turn the pedals at chest height, using your hands. Both activities will boost your heart health.
Try a seniors’ tai chi class – perhaps the next best thing to dancing in slow motion! This controlled and graceful discipline is excellent for strength, posture and balance, and gentle and precise enough to be kind to your knees.
How about juggling? It’s a brilliant way to keep your brain and senses sharp, your hands supple – and it is surprisingly energetic without being hard on your knees. It might even provide you with a great party piece to rival your former skill at ballroom dancing!
Whatever you go for, make sure you do joint loosening and stretching every day to prevent your knees from stiffening up. Arthritis Care has a helpful booklet, “Arthritis & Exercise”, which explains all the basics.