Fit at any age

If your joints are stiff and achy, inactivity will only make things worse. Brisk walking builds strength, burns calories and supports joint health.

After the winter we had, many of us are eager to put a little spring in our steps. Others, not so much. The prospect of increased activity can be daunting for those wrestling with joint pain – and that’s quite a few people.

A national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one-third of adults suffer from “aching, stiffness or swelling in or around a joint.” That could include knee, hip and ankle pain, and the causes could range from overuse to osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis in those 50 and older.

Here’s the rub: Because of discomfort tied to joint pain, those impacted may be inclined to pass on exercise. That actually can cause joints to further degrade and become more problem-prone. Instead, think of exercising as “oiling our joints.”

OrthoNebraska physical therapist Elisa Bowcott says there are several highly effective, low-impact activities that can help improve cardio-fitness, overall strength and range of motion – all while promoting better joint health. Here's her Top 5.

1. Brisk walking | low impact

Brisk walking, which counts as moderate-to-vigorous exercise, builds strength, burns calories and supports joint health. It also can help older adults more easily perform functional tasks, like walking across a room or crossing the street quicker and more safely.

For those with knee osteoarthritis, a new finding, highlighted in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that as little as an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a week can lower the “risk of mobility-related disability by 85% and that of daily living disability by nearly 45%.”

That’s encouraging news for seniors who may see current government guidelines — at least 2.5 weekly hours of moderate-intensity physical activity to reduce risk of chronic disease — as unachievable.

“This new finding may be a steppingstone for people who were previously inactive. Overall, this equates to less than 10 minutes a day to help someone maintain their independence, which may be much more achievable,” Bowcott says.

2. Biking | no impact

“Biking provides good mobility at both the hip and knee,” Bowcott says. This means you’re getting more range of motion compared to walking. Like the other activities on the list, biking also increases circulation.

Did you know Omaha’s expansive trail system — good for biking and walking — encompasses more than 120 miles of paved trail throughout the city? Find a Paths of Discovery map of metro area trails here.

3. Swimming | no impact

Swimming is an effective way to exercise your entire body. Water offers more resistance than air for effective strength-building, and since it’s buoyant, water reduces your weight and impact on the joints. As an added bonus, aquatic activities, including swimming, have been found to help decrease swelling of joints and surrounding tissue.

4. Water walking | low or no impact

“For those who still may have aches and pain with regular walking, the buoyancy of the water should help to mitigate this pain in joints,” Bowcott says. Water walkers can step along the bottom of the pool (low impact) or use a float belt in deeper water (no impact), going through the motions of walking or cycling.

5. Elliptical | low impact

Time on the elliptical can work both the arms and legs, which can lead to a more vigorous cardio workout with minimal impact.

If you like the sound of swimming, water walking or elliptical, but don’t have access to a gym or community center, a couple of options to consider:

• See if you qualify for SilverSneakers®, a health and fitness program designed for adults 65+ that’s included with many Medicare Plans. The program includes discounted or no-cost memberships at a number of gyms and YMCAs in the metro area.

• If you’re not on Medicare, many gyms offer low-cost month-to-month memberships with no contracts.

• Omaha’s outdoor public pools open June 3. For indoor public pool schedules, check the Omaha Parks and Recreation website.

When starting any kind of exercise program — and especially if you have joint or other concerns — it’s always sound strategy to consult and work with a medical professional. A physical therapist like Bowcott is trained to specifically design a program tailored to your needs, goals and abilities.

Find more stories like this in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska's Thrive 55+ series on omaha.com

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