The Importance of Exercise for Kids with Arthritis

Written by The Arthritis Foundation | KIDSGETARTHRITISTOO.ORG

Physical activity can boost your child’s ability to move and enjoy life.

We all know exercise is good for us, but the benefits of physical activity for children with juvenile arthritis and related conditions can even be greater – as can the downsides of not being physically active. That’s why it’s especially crucial for kids with arthritis to keep moving.

Fitness Facts 

By and large, studies show that kidswith arthritis are less fit than their healthy counterparts. Specifically, they have less muscle strength and muscle endurance. They also have less aerobic capacity (needed for prolonged exercise) and anaerobic capacity (needed to perform intense bursts of activity); therefore, they tire faster during physical activity than kids who don’t have arthritis even when their disease is inactive.

On the flip side, studies also demonstrate that these conditions can be improved with exercise training. Aerobic and anaerobic capacity can be boosted, and resistance training can increase muscle strength and endurance.

Yes, They Can 

Perhaps the most important thing to know about exercise for children with arthritis is that when done properly it does no harm. They can and should exercise.

Many studies show that land- and water-based exercise is safe, and that joint pain and swelling don’t get worse after exercise programs.

A Little Bit Brings Big Benefits 

In fact, research that analyzed the effectiveness of high-intensity aerobic training versus low-intensity aerobic training in children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) showed both groups’ physical function improved, as well as improved confidence with physical activity and better balance.

In addition to these benefits, research also shows exercise may positively affect low bone mineral density (BMD), a common secondary condition associated with JIA. Although low-impact activities, like swimming and biking, have proven safest for joints, weight-bearing activities, including walking, jumping rope, skipping and step aerobics, may help boost bone density in children who can do them. Talk with your child’s doctor or physical therapist about the possibility of adding these or other weight-bearing activities to your child’s routine and which types of activities might work best for him.

Finding an Exercise Match 

All this glowing talk about exercise aside, finding the perfect activity for your child and getting her to stick with it may not be easy. It took loads of trial and error and a strong commitment on the part of Lynn Camino of Fort Wayne, Ind., to find an activity that her daughter, Sarah, could do pain-free.

Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis when she was 6, Sarah is now a 10-year-old fourth grader who enjoys horseback and bike riding, baseball, swimming for fun, bowling and moderate walking. She also likes playing sports games on her Wii video game console when the weather keeps her indoors.

But finding the right fit didn’t come easily. Sarah tried ballet, competitive swimming and tennis, but had to drop those before finding options that she likes. Lynn is glad they didn’t give up, and she’s satisfied with Sarah’s current level of exercise.

Not surprisingly, experts have found that the optimal way to get kids to exercise regularly (an hour, broken up, of moderate exercise daily) is to find something they like to do, as Sarah and Lynn did. Modifications may have to be made, depending upon which of your child’s joints are involved, and it’s important to work with his or her doctor or physical therapist when selecting appropriate activities.

Children with multiple joint involvement and systemic or active disease will likely have a tougher time with exercise. Water-based exercise may work best for these kids or for those with trouble walking. A tricycle or bicycle also may provide an opportunity for comfortable exercise.

A Family Affair 

One of the best ways to help your child with arthritis become – and stay – active is to get your whole family involved. Kids with arthritis often feel different because of their disease; if they’re exercising solo at home, they’ll again feel like the odd one out. Getting the whole family moving could improve the likelihood of your child participating.

By making physical activity a family affair, evening walks can become a cherished part of your family’s routine – offering a time to talk and bond in addition to staying fit.