The cold weather and frigid days of the winter are here and if you have arthritis, you can literally feel it in your bones. You know how sore your joints can be. While it is very enticing to stay bundled up on your couch with a hot beverage, keeping yourself active is extremely important. Staying active increases blood flow and improves the movement of synovial fluid (the lubricant) surrounding your joints. Besides, staying active will help prevent weight gain that is commonly seen during the colder months.
In this article, we explore reasons as to what causes joint pain in winter and what can you do to stay active during the winter months.
First things first, is it true that winter aggravates your chronic pain or does it just increase the perception of pain in winter? Well the answer is a bit complicated. But long story short, both statements are true. Research conducted by prominent pain psychologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Dr. Robert Jamison explains that the cause of pain is just basic Physics. First, tissue in and surrounding your joints such as bones, tendons and ligaments are all of different densities. Additionally, chronic arthritis would’ve also caused scarring in these tissues. Due to this, both normal as well as scarred tissues tend to expand and contract differently when the weather is cold and damp. This unequal stretching and relaxing of tissue provides one possible explanation. Secondly, changes in barometric pressure (pressure exerted by the atmosphere) and temperature can cause strain on the scarred tissue in your joints and thereby making them more sensitive to pain. Changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature may cause the joints to go stiff and cause subtle movements that increase the sensitivity of the already scarred joint tissue. Finally, it is also a known fact that seasonal changes, especially the long and dark days of winter can alter a person’s mood and thereby indirectly influence the perception of pain (Read our article on Seasonal Depression and managing your pain).
Now that you know why your joint pain flares up in the colder months, let us now have a look at what can you do to stay active and exercise to keep your joint pain away.
With the pain and fatigue of arthritis, exercising regularly can be challenging. Recommendations from the Osteoarthritis Research Society International (OARSI) clearly state that moderate aerobic exercises and strength training is one of the first-line treatments for hip and knee arthritis. While being active is immensely beneficial, it does not mean getting into high-impact workouts to see the difference in your mind and body. Low-impact workouts are just as helpful as they provide the same benefit but are easy on your joints. Examples of low-impact activities include such things as walking, cycling (stationary bikes included), aerobics, and home-based Quadriceps strengthening exercises. See this playlist of Quadriceps strengthening exercises performed by our Anooka Health Coach. You can also watch and learn to do this fun, aerobic dance routine performed by Physiatrist, Dr. Andrea Furlan.
When the skies are clear, you can consider safe outdoor activities to get some exercise. It will not only help you with your arthritis but will also brighten up your mood. Consider safe walking options; you can even just take a walk around your neighbourhood. Just remember to stay off the ice or use ice cleats or gripons with your snow boots.
Snowshoeing is another low impact fun activity to get those joints moving and blood flowing. If you are really into it, then cross-country skiing is the way to go. It is a leisurely activity to enjoy the season without the stress on your joints. Just remember to take it easy because it is easy to overdo it.
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese exercise discipline that uses an integrated mind-body approach to enhance muscle function, improve balance, increase flexibility, and reduce pain, depression, and anxiety. The mindful movements of Tai Chi are even known to outperform conventional physical exercise with regard to effects on quality of life, mood, and cognitive functioning in older adults. A study published in the journal of Arthritis and Rheumatism found that a 12 week class of Tai Chi resulted in improved mobility, physical strength and promoted a sense of well-being. The effects of this 12-week program also lasted more than a year later. Look at this video of a simple but effective Tai Chi routine to learn more.
The term Yoga implies the practice of not just specific body postures but also includes breath control and simple meditation. Yoga has been known to be beneficial for people living with chronic low-back pain and Knee Osteoarthritis. Yoga as a therapeutic intervention improves posture, stability, balance, and flexibility in older adults. Although, remember that yoga for low-back pain and Knee Osteoarthritis has to be be targeted towards very specific muscle groups. Yoga classes may be available at specific medical centers near you. If not, you can ask our Anooka Coach for further guidance.
Watch and learn to do this simple but effective sun salutation routine prepared by Celeste Shirley, a yoga teacher of 35+ years!
Pilates has been one of the most popular exercise programs over the last few years as a clinical intervention for non-specific low-back pain. Pilates, a system of exercises designed by Joseph Pilates was designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness. A systematic review (a very high quality analysis of data from clinical trials) by the Cochrane Collaboration has found decent evidence that regular practice of Pilates has shown to improve pain and disability with its effect on function lasting in an intermediate term follow-up.
While choosing to be active is good, being safe and healthy is important too. Here are few key tips to keep in mind before you begin your winter exercise. Warm up for a few minutes to loosen your joints and get get the fluid in your joints running. Don’t forget to cool down once you complete your workout. You can reserve your time for workouts for late mornings or afternoon when the day has warmed up and so has your body. Invest in a pair of good quality snow boots to protect yourself against slips and falls. Keep yourself warm and dress in comfortable layers. This will allow you to easily take the layers off as you warm up and put them back on when you start to feel cold. Loose layers will keep your joints warm by trapping body heat. Make sure to also keep your hands and feet warm. Wearing mittens, or gloves and socks can help in protecting the joints of the fingers and toes. Still too cold, stuff hand or toe warmers into your mitts and boots. Ear muffs, scarf or a or toque (also known as a beanie) can protect your ears. It is also important to drink enough water and keep yourself hydrated. Remember to pick up that bottle of water before you head out.
Evidently, there are quite a few options for you to stay active this winter. Choose one or a combination of these activities that work best for you. Let this cold season not be an excuse for you to take a timeout from exercise. Keep those joints moving, keep the spring in your step and stay on top of your health. Take 15min every morning in the morning to try this 5 minute winter warm up!
Have you tried, any of the above? How did it work out for you? Do you want pointers on getting started? Write to us, one of our movement experts will be happy to help you!
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(2) Arthritis Foundation. Living with Arthritis Blog: 10 tips for cold weather exercise with arthritis. (Accessed on: January 17, 2022).
(3) Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. (2017). OSH Answers Fact Sheets: Osteoarthritis. (Accessed on January 17, 2022)
(4) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018). Physical activity for arthritis. (Accessed on: January 17, 2022)
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