A severe case of osteoarthritis left Dorothy Hughes of Tempe in a wheelchair.
"My doctor was eventually able to get me onto a walker," the 73-year-old said. "Then, he started me in physical therapy. Finally, he said, ‘I think you’re ready for yoga.’ "
Hughes didn’t think it would help.
"I wasn’t afraid," she said. "I was just very doubtful that it would make a difference."
But a year after taking her first yoga class, she now stands strong and tall.
"It’s made an enormous difference," she said. "It’s loosened me up. I can walk a lot better. It improved my balance. And I’ve gained a lot of energy and a greater sense of well-being."
According to Scottsdale rheumatologist Dr. Paul Howard, who recommended the yoga class to Hughes, exercising regularly is critical for people with arthritis. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces pain, combats fatigue and can also help maintain a healthy weight, which is important for the body’s joints.
"Because people who have arthritis are in so much pain, the logical thing for them to do is guard each area of pain," said Ginnie Livingston, who teaches yoga classes at Arthritis Health in Scottsdale. "But that limits their motion in that area. The muscles lose their strength and they experience deconditioning, which adds to their limitations and pretty soon they are able to do less and less."
The biggest impact comes when the deconditioned body isn’t able to take advantage of improved treatments for arthritis.
"What happens is that people get better in terms of their arthritis, but their functional ability doesn’t improve," Howard said. "Their pain goes down. Their swelling goes down. But medicine won’t make muscles recover. So for improved treatments to take you to a better level of functioning, it’s imperative to stay active."
But when you have a disease that causes pain and stiffness, the thought of walking or swimming or stretching is not appealing. A 1998 survey by the Arthritis Foundation showed that 70 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis give up exercise when their disease is at its worst.
But that’s the wrong thing to do, Howard said.
"The muscles and tissue around the joints get very tight," he said. "The key is start off slowly with some simple stretching exercises, then build on the stretching with some strengthening and then conditioning. Make it a threefold process."
The Arthritis Foundation has endorsed yoga and tai chi as ways to improve the physical capabilities of arthritis sufferers. Experts also recommend water aerobics or swimming laps for people with arthritis because water takes the weight off aching joints.
"Yoga is perfect for people with arthritis because it’s a wonderful stretching exercise," Howard said.
"Yoga is slow, you can control the movements and work on body control and balance. The best thing is that it builds upon itself, strengthening and conditioning the body over time."
Contact the experts
• To find out more about Ginnie Livingston’s yoga classes for people with arthritis, call (480) 609-4200
• Contact Dr. Paul Howard at Arthritis Health, 10601 N. Hayden Road, Suite I-100, Scottsdale, (480) 609-4200